ROME — In a rare joint public appearance, both Pope Francis and his predecessor, the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, met a group of 40,000 elderly people and grandparents today in St. Peter’s Square, in what amounted to a celebration of old age.
“Violence against the elderly is inhuman,” said Francis, who was particularly moved by the testimony of Mubarak and Aneesa Hano, a couple of Iraqi refugees that represented the elderly suffering in war zones.
“In countries with religious persecution, the grandparents were the brave ones who made sure their grandchildren received the baptism, it’s because of their braveness that faith survived in countries like Albania,” he said.
Benedict XVI, who look tired but in good health, participated at the request of the Francis and received a standing ovation by a square that kept cheering loudly whenever his name was mentioned.
“Thank you emeritus Pope Benedict for being here,” Francis said. “I’ve always said that having him, here at the Vatican, is like having grandpa home.”
Francis also reiterated his criticism of a “throwaway culture,” stating that babies, youth, and the elderly are often forgotten or disregarded “with the pretext of keeping a balanced economic system.”
“A country that doesn’t custody the elderly and that isn’t kind with them has no future,” said Francis. “We lose our memory and we stay away of the roots. But you have the responsibility of keeping these roots alive.”
Called “The Blessing of a Long Life,” the event was an initiative of the Pontifical Council for the Family. The president of the Vatican office, Italian Archbishop Vicenzo Paglia, called the German pope “the first amongst us [the elderly].”
After the first part of the encounter, where various testimonies were shared, representing diverse situations senior Catholics go through, Pope Francis led a Mass together with 100 elderly priests who concelebrated with him.
In his homily, Francis referred to the sometimes often “adolescent rebellion” caused by complex historical and cultural reasons and a need to be independent from the legacy of the older generation.
“Unless the encounter, the meeting of generations, is reestablished, unless a new and fruitful intergenerational equilibrium is restored, what results is a serious impoverishment for everyone, and the freedom which prevails in society is actually a false freedom, which almost always becomes a form of authoritarianism.”
In a September 1 interview with Crux, Paglia said the encounter is an answer to the “constant request for a world day for the elderly,” similar to the encounter addressed to youth that takes place every two or three years in different countries, called World Youth Day.
When questioned about the possibility of the second edition taking place during next year’s World Meeting of Family, to be held in September in Philadelphia, Paglia said, “Let’s wait until this one is over. But wouldn’t it be nice?”
Bill and Lauren, whose last names weren’t given, said they came to Rome from New York. They were planning a retirement trip around Europe, but when they found out the elderly were being honored, they changed their itinerary to make it coincide with the celebration.
“We couldn’t not come,” Lauren said. “We often complain about being forgotten, for the fact that we have to bribe our grandchildren to give us a call. And here’s to pope, spending his morning with us.”
Her husband was particularly moved after seeing Benedict XVI.
“It was a blessing,” he said. “He’s a great example to us all: he gave it all, and when he couldn’t do it anymore, he was humble enough to take a step back. Many of us learn that lesson the hard way.”