July 26, 2013

At World Youth Day, pope honors the elderly

By RACHEL ZOLL / AP Religion Writer

Pope Francis has introduced a surprising theme during an event dedicated to inspiring young people: He has repeatedly praised the elderly as valued contributors to the church's future.

click image to enlarge

In this Thursday photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis meets with residents of the Varginha community in Rio de Janeiro. As a cardinal, Francis showed a special concern for the elderly that continues in his pontificate. But he's likely also aware of demographic trends in the church and society at large. The percentage of elderly is growing steadily around the globe, and caring for them is expected to become a major challenge.

AP file photo

Francis raised the topic Monday on the plane taking him to Brazil, in brief remarks to reporters meant to set the tone for World Youth Day. He returned to the issue in an emotional meeting Thursday with thousands of young pilgrims from his native Argentina, calling younger and older Catholics "two poles of humanity" who had much to offer each other. Speaking today from the balcony of the archbishop's residence in Rio de Janeiro, he called relationships across generations a "treasure" and urged young people to honor their grandparents.

"A people has a future if it goes forward with both elements: with the young, who have the strength, and things move forward because they do the carrying; and with the elderly because they are the ones who give life's wisdom," Francis said, en route to Rio. "We do the elderly an injustice. We set them aside as if they had nothing to offer us."

Scholars said they didn't expect to hear about the elderly during the week of events, but saw the issue as an extension of his focus on social justice, embracing the outcast and valuing human life, which Francis says society often treats as something disposable. But his focus on the aged also may be motivated by a recognition that the world is getting older.

"I'm very surprised by the emphasis he has on this — surprised in a good way," said Christopher Ruddy, a theologian at Catholic University of America in Washington. "He's talking in this sense about a common sense of human dignity of all people. This is a foundation of Catholic social teaching."

As a cardinal, Francis showed special concern for the elderly. In the book, "On Heaven and Earth," a religious discussion between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the future pope said inattention to the health care and prescription needs of older people amounted to "covert euthanasia."

Old people have much wisdom to offer, he said, but "end up being stored away in a nursing home like an overcoat that is hung up in the closet during the summer."

He has shown a gentle deference to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and is also deeply devoted to the memory of his paternal grandmother, whom he credits for teaching him about Jesus and the church. He keeps a note she sent to her grandchildren in his breviary recommending they pray and "look to Mary at the feet of the cross," for comfort in times of despair.

Last May, addressing a crowd in St. Peter's Square, he recalled how his grandmother took him to a Good Friday procession as a boy, and when a depiction of the dead Christ passed by, said, "Look, he is dead, but tomorrow he will rise."

"This was how I received my first Christian proclamation, from this very woman, from my grandmother!" he said.

William Portier, a theologian at the University of Dayton, a Marianist school in Ohio, viewed Francis' elderly focus as part of the pope's "radical inclusivity."

The pope told the Argentine pilgrims, "We're in the presence of a philosophy and practice of exclusion of the two poles of humanity. Exclusion of the old people, of course, because they aren't cared for. And exclusion of the youths without work."

"This civilization excludes those on both ends. You have to give them value," Francis said. "The youth need to serve. Fight for these values. And the old people will spread them."

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