ROME — Perhaps the Catholic Church’s most celebrated retired senior citizen is the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, making it entirely fitting that he’ll join Pope Francis on Sunday in welcoming more than 40,000 elderly people to the Vatican.
In truth, the 77-year-old Francis would have been perfectly suited to handle the appointment all by himself, but a Vatican spokesman said today that he’d invited the 87-year-old Benedict, who accepted “readily.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi said that Benedict XVI, who’s making his first public appearance since last April’s canonization ceremony for Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, would be present for only one hour of the four-hour program.
Called “The Blessing of a Long Life,” the event will take place in St. Peter’s Square, culminating with a Mass presided over by Pope Francis.
In many cases, the elderly will be accompanied by their families. The presence of grandchildren has been particularly encouraged by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Vatican office that organized the meeting.
Francis will be welcomed with a live performance by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.
When asked why Benedict wouldn’t attend the Mass, Lombardi gave an utterly frank answer: “We’ll see when you turn 90 if you can stand such a morning.”
Elderly Catholics from more than 20 countries will attend the celebration, including many from the United States, Spain, and Argentina. A couple of Iraqi refugees from Qaraquosh, from the diocese of Mosul, are on the guest list.
According to information released by the Vatican, Mubarak and Aneesa Hano, the Iraqi couple, have been married for 51 years. They have 10 children and 12 nephews and will represent the suffering of Christian families living in conflict zones.
Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that “the testimony of these Iraqi elderly reminds us all that war is truly madness; we hope that the world, as Pope Francis has claimed, learns from this lesson.”
Talking with Crux in a Sept. 1 interview, Paglia shared that more than 100 elderly priests will concelebrate with the pope, as an appreciation of their years spent announcing the Gospel.
To the right and left of the stage there will be 1,000 grandparents with their grandchildren. According to Paglia, this will help remind the youth of the importance of looking up to — and after — their grandparents.
It’s part of Francis’ longstanding insistence that old people shouldn’t be shut away in retirement homes, but should be actively cherished for their wisdom.
“We live in a time when the elderly do not count,” Francis said in November, 2013.
“It’s awful to say, but they are discarded because they are a nuisance to us. The elderly are those who carry history, who carry doctrine, who carry the faith and give it to us as an inheritance. They are like a good vintage wine who have this strength from within to give us a noble heritage.”