In the December edition of the Pope Video, Pope Francis asks us to pray that the elderly of every culture will be respected and taken into consideration. He urges respect and care for grandparents around the world, underlining the role they play in society as beacons of wisdom and experience. The Pope says “A people that does not take care of grandparents, that does not treat them well has no future!” He highlights how the elderly “have wisdom”, and explains how they “are entrusted with a great responsibility: to transmit their life experience, their family history, the history of a community, of a people.” In conclusion the Pope issues a request “Let us keep in mind our elders, so that sustained by families and institutions, may with their wisdom and experience collaborate in the education of new generations.”
The Pope’s Universal Prayer Intention for December is ‘That the elderly, sustained by families and Christian communities, may apply their wisdom and experience to spreading the faith and forming the new generations.’ The percentage of the world’s population that is elderly is increasing at the fastest rate ever recorded. Data from the World Bank shows that in 2016, 8.48% of the population of the world was over age 65. Countries with the highest percentages of elderly people include Japan (27%), Italy (23%), Portugal and Finland (21%), and Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia, and Sweden (20%). 14% of Ireland’s population is now aged 65 and above, in 1960 this was 11%.
Charles Searson is an Irish Jesuit living in Zambia. He comments monthly on the Pope’s intentions. Writing this month Charlie recalls an experience he had in Kenya, a few years ago. “I heard people using the word “Mzee” meaning an elder, someone old and wise. I asked: “Have I become a Mzee?” I was told: “Not yet!” But a Jesuit friend and colleague of his, Chris Chatteris, fared better than Charlie. Writing in the Southern Cross a Catholic newspaper in South Africa Chris said, “A Bishop recently asked me how I was doing in the seminary and I replied that I was getting older. He replied by complimenting me on being an ‘ancestor’ around the place. To call a living person an ‘ancestor’ is a very affirming tribute in African culture and I was very touched. His remark encouraged me to continue to do my best in my educational and formational roles.”
Charles says that Pope Francis is himself an elder, a Mzee, and he asks us to pray that the elderly might be sustained by families and Christian communities, may apply their wisdom and experience to spreading the faith and forming the new generations. And he concludes with an Advent wish, that “all of us, young and old, reach out to God during the four weeks of Advent and may our celebration of the Word made Flesh at Christmas continue to transform us and our world.”
In his General Audience on 11 March 2015 Pope Francis outlined how the prayer of grandparents and of the elderly “is a great gift for the Church”, describing it as “a treasure”. He highlighted the example of Benedict XVI, “who chose to spend the final span of his life in prayer and listening to God”, and said that “we need old people who pray; prayer is the purpose of old age”. According to Francis the elderly “are able to intercede for the expectations of younger generations and give dignity to the memory and sacrifices of past generations”. The Pope outlined how “Grandfathers and grandmothers form the enduring ‘chorus’of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise sustain the community which toils and struggles in the field of life”.
Fr Frédéric Fornos SJ, International Director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, noted how Pope Francis highlighted the importance of respect for the elderly in a homily at Santa Marta in November 2013. “The elderly give us history, they give us doctrine, they give us faith and they give us an inheritance. They are the ones that, like a good wine, have this strength within themselves to give us a noble inheritance,” the Pope said on that occasion. “These words are an invitation,” Fr Fornos reflected, “in this month of December, to approach our grandparents, the elderly, especially those around us, and receive from them our history, our roots, the wisdom of life.”