ROME – Statistically speaking, around the world people are living longer; this is particularly true in developed countries. As a response, the Vatican is organizing a workshop in Rome bringing together experts and people who minister to the elderly to reflect on what the Church can do to prepare for the “revolution of longevity.”
Some 550 people from 60 countries and five continents will meet to reflect on this revolution and try to find answers to the question of how the Church can better serve the elderly, and also how to keep the elderly an active part of the Church.
The Jan. 29-31 meeting, titled “The Richness of the Years” (La ricchezza degli anni), will be divided into three major themes: First, the fight against the “throwaway culture” and seeking ways for the Church to better show its merciful face to the elderly, families and their responsibility in helping the elderly, and the vocation the elderly have within the Church.
“Pope Francis has told us that they can bring wisdom and experience, but I would add that they have even more to bring,” said Father Jose Ignacio Figueroa, a Spaniard who’s been working with grandparents for more than three decades.
“As we become older, we lose many qualities: Our sight, our hearing, our legs,” he said on Tuesday, during a meeting with some of the participants and Rome-based journalists. “But we also gain others, that are strengthened with the years, including our ability to love, our sensitivity and our religious feelings.”
The meeting is being organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life headed by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell. The prelate wasn’t available on Tuesday but speaking with Vatican News he said that “in the Church, in some ways, the elderly have been a bit forgotten.”
“Whoever has worked in a parish, particularly in very developed countries, knows that the elderly live a very solitary existence,” he said. “Sometimes they’re set aside: Pope Francis speaks about a throwaway culture, that means that our elderly are marginalized.”
This marginalization, he said, happens in parishes, in dioceses, “everywhere.”
“Elderly people are often seen as a burden: A burden for their families, for society and for the Church,” Farrell said. “Instead, they must be co-protagonists because of the experience they have thanks to the years they have lived.”
Italian layman Vittorio Scelzo, who works for the office for elderly ministry in Farrell’s dicastery said that he hoped at the end of the meeting, a “network” will be formed bringing together those who already work with the elderly, giving it further representation at the level of national bishops’ conferences, to make this ministry a “heritage” shared by the universal Church.
“We want to make sure that the generosity of some becomes everyone’s culture,” he told a small group of journalists on Tuesday. “But we also want to awaken in the elderly the awareness of being protagonists. Pope Francis once told them: Don’t pull the oars on the boat. I would say one never retires from the Gospel!”
Today, he said, for the first time in history, there is a large generation of people who are retired but in good health. These people, Scelzo said, have much to give to the Church, becoming “communicators of the Gospel,” but they are also people who the Church needs to help find a spiritual meaning for their lives.
With life expectancy growing, finding a Christian sense of living is compulsory, he said.
“The Gospel never retires,” he said. “We need to ask ourselves the question: How do we live these extra years like Christians?”
It’s also important not to take for granted that they’ve actually heard the Gospel. Many of those who are “old” today, he said, grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, so “we cannot think that they are used to going to church, that they know the Gospel; so there’s a spiritual need there that we need to address.”
Figueroa came to Rome to participate in the meeting representing Vida Ascendente, a lay-run initiative that ministers to retired and elderly people in Spain but with a presence on every continent. Accompanying him is a group of 45 “grandparents,” who came to Rome as “pilgrims, and they will be supporting our work with their prayers. It’s been an incredibly beautiful experience so far.”
“The life lived to the fullest that we see in some of them, if we manage to make it visible, concrete, palpable, I believe can change the world,” the priest told Crux. “It can transform reality. Their wisdom, what they talk to us about, it’s not some myth, but their own wisdom, their witness, the lives of faith, love, challenges, that so many times we disregard.”
Many parents, he said, use their pensions to help their children if they lose their jobs or they take care of their grandchildren while they go to work. Yet, when they can no longer help because they lack the strength to do so, “we lock them up in an asylum and forget all about them.”
“We have to take care of our elderly and enable their participation within the Church,” Figueroa said.
Italian laywoman Daniela Drei, from the John XXIII Community in Rome, is among those who work in the field, through a “home for families” that opened its doors in 2015. Though the main target is the elderly, it’s not a home for the elderly, but for children, families and those who can no longer live on their own due to age or infirmity.
“Above all, elderly people need to be loved, to be recognized for what they can still give,” she said on Tuesday. “We see that the fact that the elderly can relate to one another, help each other, cook for the household if they’re still able to, makes them feel alive.”
“We have to, as a society, make them feel loved, going from being passive members of society back to being active, each giving and sharing what they can,” Drei said.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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