VATICAN CITY — Old age “is not a disease, it’s a privilege,” and Catholic dioceses and parishes miss a huge and growing resource if they ignore their senior members, Pope Francis said.
“We must change our pastoral routines to respond to the presence of so many older people in our families and communities,” the pope told Catholic seniors and pastoral workers from around the world.
Pope Francis addressed the group Jan. 31 near the end of a three-day conference on the pastoral care of the elderly sponsored by the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life.
The Catholic Church at every level, he said, must respond to the longer life expectancies and changing demographics evident around the world.
While some people see retirement as marking the time when productivity and strength decline, the 83-year-old pope said, for others it is a time when they are still physically fit and mentally sharp but have much more freedom than they had when they were working and raising a family.
In both situations, he said, the Church must be there to offer a helping hand if needed, benefit from the gifts of the elderly and work to counter social attitudes that see the old as useless burdens on a community.
When speaking with and about older Catholics, the Church cannot act as if their lives only had a past, “a musty archive,” he said. “No. The Lord also can and wants to write new pages with them, pages of holiness, service and prayer.”
Just a few days before the feast of the Presentation of the Lord Feb. 2, Pope Francis pointed to the story of the elderly Simeon and Anna who are in the Temple, take the 40-day-old Jesus into their arms, recognize Him as the Messiah and “proclaim the revolution of tenderness.”
One message of that story is that the good news of salvation in Christ is meant for all people of all ages, he said. “So, I ask you, spare no effort in proclaiming the Gospel to grandparents and the elderly. Go out to meet them with a smile on your face and the Gospel in your hands. Leave your parishes and go seek out the elderly who live alone.”
While aging is not a disease, “solitude can be an illness,” he said. “But with charity, closeness and spiritual comfort, we can cure it.”