ROME — Any pope’s formal title is Pontifex Maximus, meaning, loosely, the great bridge-builder. While there are many chasms in the postmodern world, one that Pope Francis has always tried to span in a special way is the gap between the elderly and the young.
At an October 23 event in Rome, the 81-year old pope, surrounded both by young people and by elders, including famed American director Martin Scorsese, once again demonstrated his commitment to dialogue between generations.
The interaction came at the presentation of a book titled Sharing the Wisdom of Time by Francis and friends, edited in English by Loyola Press on the occasion of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.
“Today we see more cruelty,” said Francis, answering a question posed by Scorsese.
“People act with more cruelty … cold cruelty, calculated to ruin someone else’s life. One of the forms of cruelty in this world that touch me in this world of human rights is torture. Torture is our daily bread, and it seems normal. No one talks about it. Torture is the destruction of human dignity.”
Scorsese told the story of growing up in New York, close to the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, and said he spent a lot of time there as a child. Upon leaving the Church, he said, Jesus’ love seemed “completely apart, foreign, alien to [the suffering] I was seeing in the street.”
The movie maker asked the pope how a person can remain strong in the faith seeing even the “human failings of the institution itself, how can the faith of a young woman or man survive this maelstrom? How can we help the Church in this endeavor?”
Francis said the key is in teaching young people that cruelty is the “wrong path,” helping them to have the “wisdom and gift to cry in the face of so much violence, cruelty, [and] destruction of human life. To cry is human and Christian.”
The pontiff suggested “empathy, closeness, non-violence, tenderness, all human virtues that seem small but are capable of putting an end to the most violent of events,” Francis said.
The pontiff has long championed elders as reservoirs of wisdom, often urging younger generations to see their grandparents as the “roots” of the tree of life without which the tree can’t flower.
The event included opening remarks by Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa Mendieta, of Panama, who will be welcoming Francis next January for the itinerant Vatican-sponsored World Youth Day. It was moderated by American journalist Delia Gallagher, Vatican correspondent for CNN.
Inter-generational dialogue, Ulloa said, implies that communities have a “collective memory” because each generation “picks up from the teachings of their predecessors, leaving a legacy to their successors. This constitutes a frame of reference for our society.”
Ulloa also said society is called to appreciate the role of young people: “We pay an expensive price for our lack of faith in young people.”
In all, Francis answered six questions from people as young as 20 and as old as 83. Scorsese himself is 75, and he posed the final question to the pontiff.
Faith, the pope told two grandparents from Malta who spoke about how their children and grandchildren are sometimes far from the Catholic faith, is transmitted “in dialect, in the family, among friends, closeness. Always through dialect. One cannot share the faith with the catechism.”
Faith, he insisted, is not only “content, but a way of living,” and it’s shared through witness.
Francis acknowledged that sometimes this is hard because there are “ugly witnesses” that remove young people from the faith, and it’s that of those who “lead a double life.”
Italian Fiorella Bacherini, 83, told the pope: “I look at my country, at the world. I see increasing division and violence. For example, I have been very struck by the harshness and cruelty we have witnessed in the treatment of refugees. I do not want to discuss politics, I’m talking about humanity. How easy it is to foster hatred among people! And I recall the moments and memories of war that I experienced as a child. With what feelings are you facing this difficult moment in the history of the world?”
Francis told her that it’s true, many young people today don’t understand the damage of a war, that leaves millions of death and destruction. The pontiff also told her that young people today need to learn how “populisms” are born, and, as he’s done before, used Adolph Hitler as an example, who promised development in Germany.
He also said that to sow “hatred” is not the solution, and that it happens both in war but also in the neighborhood, when one person spreads rumors about another.
“War and rumors are of the same species: to sow hatred, it’s to murder. To murder someone else’s good name, peace and concord in the family and also the workplace.”
Speaking about the European migrant crisis, with thousands dying in the Mediterranean, Francis said that he “suffers, prays and speaks,” because the world cannot “accept this suffering. Today we have a Third World War being fought in piecemeal.”
“To sow hatred, to create violence and division is the suicide of humanity,” Francis said.
In the book, Francis, alongside elders and grandparents from around the world, shares recollections of love, loss, survival, hope, peace, and faith.
According to a statement from Loyola Press, the idea for the book came from the pope himself, who was inspired during one of his “daily prayer sessions” to “shine a light on the vital role of grandparents and other elders.”
Over 250 people were interviewed for the book, meant to be a reflection of the appreciation the pope has for both elder and younger generations. It’s a follow-up to one released in 2016, titled “Dear Pope Francis,” in which the pontiff answered letters from children around the world.
Scorsese wrote about a time in which he was rejected by a producer, who said there was “not a threat of talent” in what he’d presented.
“When you’re young, you imagine that there’s an ideal state called ‘success.’ You’d struggle, you’d be recognized, you’d finally ‘arrive,’ and … The End,” Scorsese writes in his essay.
“But arrive where? To do what? Take it easy? … To be acclaimed, validated [is] sheer euphoria. But it can be a trap because it might lead you to believe that you’re permanently safe from further failure and rejection. And then, when you make something that isn’t greeted as warmly or that’s even hated, you’ll feel like the bottom has dropped out,” he wrote.
“I think I’ve learned more from failure, rejection and outright hostility than I have from success,” Scorsese wrote.
The pontiff answered by saying that he doesn’t accept that “everyone is born with their fate already written.”
“Our life does not play out like a movie where the scenes are all predetermined. A movie director may know this better than anyone else,” he said. “We must freely encounter life and God.”
“The success of life is not glory but patience,” Francis wrote to Scorsese. “Sometimes you need a lot of it. The wise elder has so much patience, and this is the wisdom that leads you to dream.”
The pontiff also wrote the book’s preface, in which he complained “our society has silenced the voices of grandparents. We pushed them out of the way. We didn’t give them the chance to share their experiences, to tell their stories, and to speak about their lives. We put them aside, and so we have lost the treasure of their wisdom.”