From 29th to 31st January, 2020, the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life organised an international conference the pastoral care of the elderly persons, which took place at the “Augustinianum” conference center, Rome, with the theme as “THE RICHNESS OF MANY YEARS OF LIFE”. 

According to the Prefect of the Dicastery, Cardinal Kelvin Farrell, who opened the first day of the international conference on 29th of January, took as his starting point a reflection on the “demographic revolution” which is affecting the world, of which he saw as “one of the ‘signs of the times’,”.  He clarified “that we also as a Church cannot fail to take this into account: it seems that by the year 2100, 61% of the world’s population will be made up of people over sixty-five years of age, and the elderly population will already double in over the next thirty years.” All this, he added, “not only has implications of a sociological, economic, anthropological, and political nature, but above all it raises questions and needs of a spiritual character, for which we are obligated to be proactive.”    Another reason for the conference, he pointed out is that “we have the sense that the pastoral care of the elderly is a widespread but uneven concern among various local Churches.”  Therefore, “the choice to create an office dedicated to the pastoral care of the elderly and to convene this conference was born from a desire to promote a new pastoral culture, made up of love and respect for the elderly. To this end, we are committed to beginning a dialogue with our natural interlocutors, i.e. the national episcopal conferences.”  “In particular, the pastoral accompaniment which is needed by the elderly,” the Prefect explained, “is an obvious need in light of lengthening lifespans. In our society, where the ‘throw-away’ culture and the marginalization of the vulnerable often dominates the collective imagination as well as family, political, and social choices, the ‘richness of many years’ is not always welcomed as the blessing of a long life—that is, as a gift.” Thus, putting into practice the “pastoral ministry of the ear,” he concluded that the meeting “intends to be characterized by a triple form of listening: listening to the signs of the times, listening to the Magisterium, and listening to your experience, to work out together some general guidelines that can be of assistance to dioceses throughout the world.”

The pastoral care of the elderly is something new, he continued. “We must start a process and set up a dialogue which can only be but a rough draft,” in that “our task in these days is to ask ourselves what the outlines for the pastoral care of the elderly might look like.   According to him, Pope Francis loves the elderly and, from the beginning of his pontificate, and on numerous occasions, the Pope has emphasised their indispensable role in dialogue with young people, in the transmission of the faith and in the youths’ rediscovery of their own roots.   He hoped for a renewed ecclesial reflection on what he called “the blessing of a long life.”   And “when the Pope speaks of the elderly, he speaks of the future and of their valuable role in the Church and in society. This affirms us in our choice to organize the first international conference on the pastoral care of the elderly.”

This first international conference on the pastoral care of the elderly was the response of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life to this calling of the Holy Father.  Over five hundred representatives of episcopal conferences, including Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, religious congregations, associations and lay movements from around the world involved in the pastoral care of the elderly were in attendance.

The three days of the conference were packed full with activities, especially experiential presentations by experts from various parts of the world, including Africa. During the course of the first session of the conference, on the theme of “The Church alongside the elderly,” the president of Censis, Giuseppe De Rita, highlighted the erroneous perception of the elderly as “leftovers.” “In reality,” he said, “they are the richest part of society. But there are three dangers: loneliness, the loss of goals after retirement, and the awareness of one’s status as a mere creature.”

The urgency of “turning pastoral attention and care towards the elderly, on the part of the Christian community” was spoken of by the president of the Community of Sant’Egidio, Marco Impagliazzo: “There is a need to affirm oneself in the art of aging well, for the sake of others.”, he said.

Dom. José Antônio Peruzzo, Archbishop of Curitiba and the head of the pastoral ministry to the elderly for the Brazilian episcopal conference, took part in the round table discussion, “The Church alongside the elderly.” “The pastoral care of the elderly is a full response to Pope Francis’ pressing appeal for a Church that goes out to meet people,” he said. “It is in the name of the Church that the pastoral care of the elderly is present in families.

Peter Kevern of Staffordshire University pointed out during the round table discussion that when “we care for the needs of the elderly, we are not only dedicating ourselves to a ‘work of mercy,’ as they are traditionally called. Nor are we are simply engaging in an act of adoration, caring for those in need who are very close to the heart of our Lord. We are also taking part,” he concluded, “in a prophetic, revolutionary act: finding richness and meaning among those persons whom our society at times considers insignificant.”  Fr. Alexandre Awi Mello, underscored that “the elderly have a special vocation: both as citizens in the midst of their people as well as members of the baptized among the holy and faithful People of God; they have an irreplaceable role in living out and transmitting culture, faith, traditions, and human and religious values.”  Maria Eliza Petrelli, head of the “Pastoral del Adulto Mayor” of the Argentinian episcopal conference, spoke of pastoral ministry: “The pastoral care of families is the place where people in the ‘third age’ of life should belong, since they have formed their own families, and have also been their families’ foundations and pillars.”

The Capuchin Fr. Moisés Lucondo, who directs a hospice for the elderly in Huambo, Angola, concluded his discourse by recalling the cry of Rosa Kornfeld-Matte on behalf of the United Nations in Mozambique years ago: “We defend the urgent intervention of the Church and of African governments, in the fight against violence against the elderly, so that there are concrete measures in their favor.”

The morning session of 30th January was centered on the theme, “The Family and the Elderly” , Donatela Bramanti of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart said that “the elderly today constitute an important resource both within families and in society as a whole, as long as they succeed in living out this transition in a positive way, together with the people around them. For this,” she explained, “it is important to observe closely how the family perceives this phase as they are progressively approaching it, and what the warning signs (if they can be read) are of this new condition. In fact, it is only when one feels the discomfort of the challenge of a change,” she concluded, “that a period of searching for a new balance can begin.”

Certain that “the coexistence across different ages cannot be improvised,” Maria Voce, president of the Focolare Movement, stressed that “it is a way of openness to dialogue which must be captivating in an ever-new way even for adults, as a continuing education. It (coexistence) is based on understanding, which is a light because it gives meaning to life and opens new horizons.” In all this, according to Voce, “the Pope’s call to overcome indifference and to regard each other with esteem—the young towards the elderly and vice versa—goes beyond prejudices and clichés, indicates and gives the impression of a real sign of the times.”  Finally, Maria Voce outlined some “ways to go” with a view towards dialogue across generations: “Leave your impressions and stereotypes, and face the challenges of untried ideas, to promote a dynamic sharing and a lived reciprocity.”

Monique Bodhuin, president of “Vie Montante Internationale,” underscored how the elderly are “witnesses, caretakers, and custodians of the roots of faith among the younger generations and in society in general. At the same time, they are also the recipients of the pastoral care of the Church, which must assume the obligation of assisting them in their conversion and coming to their aid with love in order to bring them out of the existential peripheries of their existence.”   In conclusion, the president dwelt on evangelization, “a path to walk together, under the banner of relationship and encounter.”

Speaking of the need to “encourage prayer within our families,” Catherine Wiley, president of the Catholic Grandparents Association, in the course of the morning round table discussion stated, “This will help them to find ways to nurture mutual respect and love and an openness to receive from our elderly the gifts of their wisdom and experience. Technology today, while it can be at times intrusive, can be the crucial link for families that are separated by distance.”

Giovanni Paolo Ramonda, president of the Pope John XXIII Association, emphasised that “family law should be drafted with the elderly and children in mind. A people can only be considered humane if they do not leave behind the most vulnerable—or worse still, accompany them to a deliberately premature death.  A society is only fully human if it takes care of the weak, the sick, the suffering, and if it channels its resources towards those families that have within them members who are sick, elderly, or even terminally ill. The scandal of privilege and waste,” he continued, “must be cancelled in favor of these parts of society, in order to be on the side of those who cannot care for themselves.” Ramonda hoped that every elderly person “would be able to spend their old age at home with their own family, encouraging at-home care and educational economic support; and if this is not possible, developing systems of familial caretaking to allow the elderly person to reclaim their role as a grandparent, and along with this the possibility of loving and being loved. The elderly,” he concluded, “are our roots, the custodians of memory, of history, the connecting link in the circle of life.”

Other speakers were very apt in their interventions and emphasised the importance of elderly members our various members and the vocation of the senior citizens as passing on the faith and a rallying point for intergenerational life enhancing interactions.

The concluding remarks were made by Gabriella Gambino, the Undersecretary to the Dicastery, who “considering the wide variety of the life situations of the elderly in the hundreds of dioceses throughout the whole world, along with the different cultural and social contexts,” summarized some guidelines in order to initiate action by the various dioceses:

  • “regard the great population of the elderly as part of the people of God—they have particular needs which must be taken into account, and for this reason it is necessary that dioceses create offices dedicated to the pastoral care of the elderly;”

  • “the pastoral care of the elderly, like every other pastoral ministry, is to be inserted into the new missionary season inaugurated by Pope Francis with Evangelii Gaudium. This means: announcing the presence of Christ to elderly people, since the call to holiness is for everyone, even for grandparents. Not every elderly person has already encountered Christ and, even if this encounter has taken place, it is crucial to help them rediscover the significance of their baptism in this special phase of life;”
  • “Do not establish pastoral ministry to the elderly as an isolated sector, but rather establish it according to a collaborative pastoral approach;”

  • “Value the gifts and charisms of elderly people, in charitable activity, in the apostolate, and in the liturgy;”
  • “Support families and be present to them when they need to look after elderly grandparents;”

  • “Stem the tide of the ‘throw-away’ culture.” Many elderly people, she explained, “ask to be put away in institutions so as not to be a burden,” and, “in some countries they are already proposing euthanasia—explicitly condemned by the Church—for elderly people who are lonely and tired of living.” Therefore, she clarified, “wherever there are people questioning whether their life is still useful or whether anybody cares…well, there is a void that the pastoral ministry of the Church must fill.”
  • “Care for the spirituality of the elderly, so that alongside piety and devotional practices, they may be immersed in an authentic, deep spiritual relationship with God. The ageing person is not approaching an end; rather, he must draw near to God and the mystery of eternity.”

Finally, the Undersecretary promised the numerous participants accompaniment and support on the part of the Dicastery: “It is not [just] strategies that are needed, but rather human relationships that grow into networks of collaboration and solidarity between dioceses, parishes, lay communities, associations, and families. What is needed are solid networks with strong roots, not fragmented and fragile initiatives. And sometimes it is from the smallest of seeds,” she concluded, “that the greatest projects are born.”

In summary, my dear FHLU coordinators, “the elderly are precious for the family and family is precious for the elderly”.  “If we want to protect and defend life, we must protect the elderly and work together to create networks of presence and human and Christian solidarity around them. Caring for the elderly is caring for Christ the poor.” 

The conference with the audience with Pope Francis on 31st..    During the audience, the Holy Father spoke on the theme of “gratuity,” emphasizing how “the elderly who are in good health can offer a few hours of their time to care for those in need, thereby also enriching themselves.” This belies the idea—or the prejudice—that the elderly are those who only have needs, and demonstrates how valuable their contribution is in terms of memory, solidarity, and—as Scripture says—in terms of dreams. (cf. Joel 3:1).

Reported by Sr. M. Rosanna Emenusiobi and the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.