ROME – Pope Francis on Saturday congratulated a group of Italian Catholic youth, part of the Catholic Action movement, for their efforts to reach out to the group’s grandparents, saying the elderly are the “historical memory of every community.”
“I want to tell you how much I appreciate the encounters of awareness and closeness you’re holding this year – the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Catholic Action” – with the ‘grandparents’ of the association,” Francis said.
“This is a very beautiful and important thing,” the pope said, “because the elderly are the historical memory of every community, a patrimony of wisdom and faith that needs to be heard, cared for and valued.”
Founded in 1867, Catholic Action is the most widespread lay movement in Italy. It numbers around 400,000 active members, and according to figures from the Italian bishops’ conference, each year about one million people take part in its activities.
Every year, a group of youth from the organization present Christmas greetings to the pope, which was the setting for Francis’s remarks on Saturday.
From the beginning of his papacy, urging youth to forge bonds with the elderly has been a special concern for Francis. He raised the issue, for instance, on the papal plane en route to Brazil in 2013 for his first international journey, in this case the celebration of World Youth Day.
“The elderly, they too are the future of a people,” the pontiff said. “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.”
“I have often thought that we do the elderly an injustice, we set them aside as if they had nothing to offer us; they have wisdom, life’s wisdom, history’s wisdom, the homeland’s wisdom, the family’s wisdom. And we need all this!” he said.
It’s a longstanding concern for Francis, reaching back to his years as a cardinal in Argentina. In a book with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio complained that too often old people “end up being stored away in a nursing home like an overcoat that is hung up in the closet during the summer.”
It’s also an issue with which Francis can identity personally, since he turns 81 on Sunday.
In other remarks to the youth on Saturday, Francis picked up on a campaign within Catholic Action to urge youth to see themselves as “photographs” of Jesus in action.
“Be good photographs,” Francis said, “both of what Jesus did and of the reality that surrounds you, with vigilant and attentive eyes.”
“Many times there are forgotten people,” the pope told the youth. “No one looks at them, no one wants to see them. They’re the poorest, the weakest, relegated to the margins of society because they’re considered a problem.”
From there Francis got concrete, sounding almost like a youth pastor.
“This can be one of your commitments, to ask yourselves: To whom do I pay most attention? Those who are strongest, who have more success in school or in sports? To whom do I pay little attention? Who do I pretend not to see?”
“These are your peripheries,” Francis said. “Try to make you objective the groups and persons that no one ever sees, and dare to take the first step to meet them. Give them a little of your time, a smile, and gesture of tenderness.”
Saturday’s meeting was among the first appointments of what will once again be a busy holiday season for the pope. Informally, the Vatican usually considers the opening act of the pope’s holiday calendar to come with his annual speech to the Roman Curia, which this year falls next Thursday.
Generally, the season is reckoned to end with the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, although informally most also include the pope’s annual address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See to be part of the lineup as well, which comes on Jan. 8.