Here is the translation of the Holy Father’s address during his weekly General Audience on 4 Mar in St Peter’s Square:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today’s catechesis and that of next Wednesday will be dedicated to the elderly who, in the realm of the family, are the grandparents. Today we will reflect on the present problematic condition of the elderly and, next time, more positively, on the vocation contained in this age of life.
Thanks to the progress in medicine, life has lengthened: society, however, has not “enlarged” to life! The number of elderly has multiplied, but our societies have not organized themselves sufficiently to give them a place, with just respect and concrete consideration for their fragility and dignity. While we are young, we are induced to ignore old age, as if it were a sickness to avoid. Then, when we become old, especially if we are poor, sick or alone, we experience the lacunae of a society planned for efficiency that, consequently, ignores the elderly. And the elderly are richness; they cannot be ignored.
During a visit to a home for the elderly, Benedict XVI used clear and prophetic words: “The quality of a society, I would like to say of a civilization, is also judged by the way the elderly are treated and the place reserved for them in common living” (12 Nov 2012). It’s true, attention to the elderly makes the difference in a civilization. In a civilization, is there attention to the elderly? Is there a place for the elderly? If so, this civilization will go forward because it respects the wisdom of the elderly. In a civilization where there is no place for the elderly, where they are discarded because they create problems, such a society bears in it the virus of death.
In the West, scholars present the currrent century as the century of growing old: children decrease and the elderly increase. This imbalance calls us into question, more than that, it is a great challenge for contemporary society. A certain culture of profit also insists on making the elderly appear as a weight, a “useless load.” Not only do they not produce, it believes, they are a load. In conclusion, as a result of thinking this way, they are discarded. It is ugly to see discarded elderly. It is a sin. No one dares to say it openly, but it is done! There is something vile in that addiction to the disposable culture. We are accustomed to discard people. We want to eliminate our growing fear of weakness and vulnerability but in doing so, we increase the anguish of the elderly of not being tolerated and of being abandoned.
Already in my ministry in Buenos Aires, I saw this reality and its problems first hand. ‘The elderly are abandoned, and not only in material precariousness. They are abandoned in the egoistic incapacity to accept their limitations, which reflect our limitations, in the numerous difficulties that they must overcome today to survive in a civilization that does not allow them to participate, to express their opinion, or to be a reference in keeping with the consumerist model that “only young people can be useful and can enjoy.’ However, the elderly should be for the whole society the reserve of wisdom of a people. The elderly are the deposit of wisdom of our people. With what ease the conscience is put to sleep when there is no love!’ (Love alone can save us, Vatican City 2013, p. 83). And it happens thus. I remember when I visited homes for the elderly, I talked with each one and I often heard this: ‘How are you?’ Well, well.’ And your children, how many do you have? Many, many.’ ‘Do they come to visit you?’ ’Yes, yes, always, they always come. ‘When was the last time they came?’ And then, the elderly woman I remember especially said: ’at Christmas.’ This was August. She was eight months without being visited by her children – abandoned for eight months. This is called mortal sin. Understood?
Once when I was little, my grandmother told us the story of an elderly grandfather who would soil himself when he ate, because he couldn’t take the soup spoon to his mouth. And his son, that is, the Father of the family, decided to separate him from the common table. And he had a table placed in the kitchen so that he could eat alone and not be seen and thus would not be an embarrassment when friends came to eat or dine. A few days later, he came home and found his son playing with wood, a hammer and nails. He was making something. The Father asked ‘What are you making?’ ‘I’m making a table, Daddy.’ ‘A table, why?’ “To have it for when you become old and so you can eat there.’ Children have more consciousness than we do.
There is a wealth of wisdom in the tradition of the Church, which has always supported a culture of closeness to the elderly, a disposition to affectionate and solidaristic support in this final part of life. This tradition is rooted in Sacred Scripture, as, for example, these expressions of the Book of Ecclesiastes demonstrate: “Do not move away from the conversation of the elderly, because they themselves learned from their parents: from them you will learn to be intelligent and to give an answer at the right moment.”
The Church cannot and does not want to be conformed to the mentality of impatience, and much less so, of indifference and contempt, when it comes to old age. We must awaken the collective sense of gratitude, of appreciation, of hospitality, which makes the elderly feel a living part of their community.
The elderly are men and women, fathers and mothers that have been before us on the same path, in our own home, in our daily battle for a fitting life. They are men and women from whom we have received much. The elderly person is not a stranger. We are the elderly: sooner or later, but inevitably, even if we don’t think about it. And if we do not learn to treat the elderly well, that is how we will be treated.
Almost all the elderly are fragile. Some, however, are particularly weak; many are alone and marked by illness. Some depend on indispensable care and others’ attention.
Will we step back because of this? Will we abandon them to their fate? A society without proximity, where unrequited gratitude and affection – also among strangers – is disappearing, is a perverse society. Faithful to the Word of God, the Church cannot tolerate these degenerations. A Christian community, in which proximity and gratitude are not considered indispensable, would lose its soul. Where there is no honor for the elderly, there is no future for the young people!