ROME – Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the Vatican’s top official on life issues, has praised the pope’s decision to launch a new weekly catechesis on “old age,” saying it is especially timely and voicing his belief that the church itself still struggles with seeing the elderly in a positive light.
“The two great problems of the 21st century are on one hand migration, and on the other old age,” Paglia told Crux, noting that thanks to medical advances, the number of elderly people has grown, “but a political, economic, cultural, and even spiritual thought is still lacking.”
“For the first time in history, we have mass old age,” Paglia said, insisting that “an urgency to reflect on old age in an organic way.”
To this end, he praised Pope Francis’s decision to dedicate his weekly general audience catechesis to the meaning and value of old age.
Francis launched the new catechesis during his Feb. 23 general audience, saying the elderly are often seen “as a burden” and that while there is a higher number of elderly people in the world, the “dominant culture has as its sole model the young adult, that is, a self-made individual who always remains young.”
“The exaltation of youth as the only age worthy of embodying the human ideal, coupled with contempt for old age as frailty, decay, disability, has been the dominant image of 20th century totalitarianism. Have we forgotten this?” he asked.
Paglia, who is president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and who leads an Italian government commission on care for the elderly, said the pope’s decision to reflect on the value of aging is an invitation for the world to begin developing “a new politics for the elderly, and also a new spirituality.”
The church must also do better in this regard, Paglia said, noting that the number of elderly people within the church has also grown, “but they are not esteemed.”
“If someone wants to make a pessimistic judgement of the church, they say, ‘it’s a church of old people!’” he said, noting that this is still seen, even inside the church, as something negative.
He also questioned the lack of formal initiatives dedicated to the elderly and old age, saying, “Why did we have a synod on the youth, but no one thinks to have a synod on the elderly? Because there is no positive thought. They are also discarded in a spiritual sense.”
This is why the pope’s new reflections on the elderly are so important and so needed, he said, adding, “There is a need to find a spirituality of old age. In Latin there is a phrase – we must find an arte senecendi, an ‘art of getting old.’”
Pope Francis has often spoken out about the value of the elderly and has consistently advocated for stronger intergenerational ties to be forged.
In his first catechesis on old age last week, the pope again stressed that “The alliance between generations, which restores all ages of life to what is human, is our lost gift, and we must get it back. It must be found, in this culture of waste and in this culture of productivity.”
Attention to the elderly, who have been the most susceptible to COVID-19, has also grown throughout the pandemic, with the Vatican launching several online campaigns encouraging young people to reach out to their grandparents or to elderly in their areas who were isolated due to coronavirus lockdowns.
In the campaign, initiated by the Vatican department for Laity, Family, and Life, young people were encouraged to make a phone call to an elderly person they knew, or to visit them, or write a letter, and to share bits of wisdom they’ve gained from the elderly on social media.
However, the pope’s decision to dedicate his general audience catechesis to old age is the first time the topic has been reflected on consistently in such a public way, Paglia said.
Paglia said he sees attention to the elderly as a new “sign of the times,” and that learning to value old age is especially important at a time when many countries are pushing to broaden euthanasia laws.
“The elderly today are discarded even more than yesterday. There are more of them, they are a burden…We believe that old age is a period of decline and failure, that they are a burden, they don’t produce, they don’t bear fruit,” he said.
The push for euthanasia, he said, “is one of the consequences of the ‘culture of waste.’”
“I believe that the more that old age is considered a bad thing, the more euthanasia grows. But this choice becomes a cruelty. It is already, but it would become systematic,” unless something is done, he said.
Italy itself is currently embroiled in a euthanasia debate. The country’s Constitutional Court recently blocked a referendum on euthanasia that was widely supported, and parliamentarians are currently evaluating a draft law regulating assisted suicide, which would make it accessible through the country’s national health system.
Paglia stressed the need for a broad and concrete follow-up to the pope’s catechesis on old age, voicing his believe that “for all dioceses of the world, a more careful reflection is needed on the elderly population.”
Pointing to the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, the first stage of which is currently unfolding, Paglia voiced his hope that a deeper reflection on the elderly and their role in society and in the church will begin during the synod process.
“While we speak with contempt about a church of old people, we must remember that during the Soviet Union, it was the elderly who saved the faith in that time, because they were the only ones who could go to church. They had a role,” he said.
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