Pope Francis on Monday afternoon met with “The Elders,” a group of international senior statesmen founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007.
“We talked about peace, mediation, and conflicts,” said Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations who now leads the group.
Launching the group on his 89th birthday, Mandela said it would try and tackle problems of a global nature, including climate change, pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, and violent conflicts.
It originally included figures such as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the group until his retirement in 2013 (the same year Mandela died.) Both men are now considered Elders emeritus.
Mandela said the retired public figures – who cannot hold office while being an Elder – were in a position to use “their collective experience, their moral courage and their ability to rise above the parochial concerns of nation, race and creed” to help make the planet a more peaceful, healthy and equitable place to live.
— The Elders (@TheElders) November 6, 2017
For the meeting with the pope, Annan was joined by Former President of Chile, Ricardo Lagos; former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson; and former Algerian foreign minister and UN diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi.
“I think it was important for us to come because we share lots of common interests and values and we wanted to engage with him and discuss how we can work together, how we can pool our efforts on some of these issues,” Annan told Vatican Radio after the meeting.
Annan said they also discussed refugees and migration, nuclear weapons, and giving a voice to and respecting women.
“There was also I think a lot of warmth, and affection, and humor in our meeting,” Robinson told Vatican Radio. “I was very struck by how relaxed the pope was with us, and how much he joked, and it was if we were a group that he could feel at home with, because we were really sharing common values, common moral purpose, common problems.”
Robinson said the group also spoke about climate change and the ongoing unrest in Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “and all of these issues the pope has in fact been engaged on, and given leadership on.
“We felt there was a great deal of common ground between us,” she said.
“We were, first of all, expressing appreciation for the role he is playing, and for the fact that he, like The Elders, is trying to be a voice for the voiceless, the marginalized. Trying to deal with the most difficult issues of conflict, so we had so many areas in common,” Robinson told Vatican Radio.
It is easy to see how Francis would appreciate the project of The Elders.
From the beginning of his pontificate, he has encouraged the elderly to share their experience.
On March 15, 2013 – two days after his election – he told the cardinals of the Church that the “old have acquired the wisdom that comes from having journeyed through life … Let us pass on this wisdom to the young: Like good wine that improves with age, let us give life’s wisdom to the young.”
The Elders are currently working on a series of projects that the Vatican also supports, including reforming the United Nations, promoting universal health care, combating climate change, and working for political stabilization in the Middle East, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar.
During his interview with Vatican Radio, Annan said he hopes Monday’s encounter will be the first of many meetings, adding that Francis “is a future Elder.”
Robinson laughed in response, adding, “I think he is a super Elder.”