LAKE STE. ANNE, Alta. — When Pope Francis landed in Canada this week, he climbed out of a car onto the tarmac, hobbled uneasily to a waiting wheelchair and froze in place as cameras filmed on edge carrying the spectacle of an assistant adjusting the pontiff’s footstools.
On a makeshift stage outside an Aboriginal cemetery in Alberta, the world watched as he gathered his strength and grabbed the arms of the assistant, who pulled him out of his wheelchair.
At Lac Ste. Anne, a secluded lake renowned for its miraculous healing powers, hundreds of worshipers waiting for Francis in a shrine adorned with the crutches and canes of the healed gasped in unison as the pope’s wheelchair hit a snag and he rushed dangerously forward.
A video feed from the Vatican was quickly cut. But seeing Francis in his growing frailty and advanced old age was quite a highlight of his visit.
While the pontiff’s primary mission to Canada was what he called a “penitential pilgrimage” to apologize to Indigenous peoples for the horrific abuses they had suffered in church-run residential schools, it was also a pilgrimage of senescence in which the 85-year-old pontiff used his own vulnerability to demand the dignity of the elderly in a world increasingly populated by them.
There was a need to build “a future in which the elderly are not pushed aside because, from a ‘practical’ point of view, they are no longer useful,” Francis said during a mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. , Alberta, one of the few events in a much lighter-than-usual papal travel schedule. “A future that is not indifferent to the need of the elderly to be cared for and listened to”, he added.
Francis, heavier, slowed by a major bowel operation last year and suffering from torn knee ligaments and sciatica, is not the first pope to make the dignity of the elderly a central concern of his subsequent pontificate.
Once vigorous, John Paul II spent his last years withdrawn, ravaged by Parkinson’s disease. For some, his illness magnified his spirituality and echoed the suffering of Christ on the cross.
For others, it was a disconcerting decline and raised questions about the governance of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, cited his failing energy as the reason for his resignation, a historic break with papal practice that cast a shadow over Francis and his physical decline.
Resigning “never occurred to me,” Francis said in a recent interview with Reuters, before inserting his usual qualification, that his calculation could change if his failing health prevented him from leading the church.
But while Benedict XVI has retired and serious illness left John Paul II no choice but to put his illness first, Francis is deliberately and relentlessly trying to reshape modern society so that it is more hospitable to the elders.
A senior Vatican official, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in a recent interview that he persuaded Francis to articulate a new Church teaching on aging that was also “offered not with words but with the body” because, he says, “the elders can teach us that we are all, in reality, fragile”.
“Aging is one of the great challenges of the 21st century,” added Bishop Paglia, who also chairs a commission of the Italian Ministry of Health for the reform of health and social care for the elderly in Italy, which has one of the oldest populations in Italy. the world.
A United Nations report predicted that people aged 60 and over will overtake people under 15 by 2050.
Archbishop Paglia said advances in longevity science and medicine have extended lifespans by decades and created “a new population of elderly people”. But it also created a contradiction, he added, because a society obsessed with longer lifespans has not changed to accommodate people of old age, either economically , political or even spiritual.
Even before he became pope at age 76, Francis paid special attention to the elderly. In the book “On Heaven and Earth”, he said that ignoring the health needs of the elderly constitutes “secret euthanasia” and that the elderly “often end up being put away in a nursing home like an overcoat that is hanging in the closet”. during summer.”
As pope, he appeared in a Netflix documentary on aging, and he regularly speaks out about how the elderly are treated like garbage in a “throwaway culture”.
In 2013, the year of his election, he used World Youth Day celebrations to honor older people. In a 2014 pre-Easter ritual meant to highlight his service to humanity, he washed and kissed the feet of elderly and disabled people in wheelchairs. In 2021, he established an annual World Day of Grandparents and Older Persons to honor the “forgotten”.
It happened during some of the worst days of the Covid pandemic and what Bishop Paglia called a “massacre of the elderly” in Italian retirement homes prompted his office to produce a “new paradigm” on caring for the elderly. care of the elderly.
This year, Francis has sought to give shape to this reflection with a series of catecheses, or religious instructions, on aging.
Spread across 15 speeches, with three more due in August, according to the Vatican, he called the burgeoning population of the old “true new people” in human history. “Never more than now, never so much risk of being thrown away,” he said.
He lamented a society in which youth had a monopoly on the “full meaning of life, while old age merely represents its emptying and loss”.
He denounces a future where technology, enchanted by the “myth of eternal youth” and the “defeat of death”, seeks to “keep the body alive with drugs and cosmetics that slow down, hide, erase old age”. .
Throughout the speeches, Francis urged people not to “hide the fragility of old age” for fear of a loss of dignity. Frailty, he argued, “is a lesson for all of us” and could lead to “much-needed” societal reform, as “the marginalization of the elderly – both conceptually and practically – corrupts all seasons of life, not just that of the elderly”. age.”
He fostered dialogue between young and old, defend the benefit of hearing the story directly from the people who lived it. He also said spending time with the elderly forces people to slow down, turn off their phones and follow a deeper clock.
“When you come home and there’s a grandfather or a grandmother who maybe isn’t lucid anymore or, I don’t know, has lost a bit of his ability to speak, and you stay with him or with her, you’re ‘wasting time,’ but this ‘wasting of time’ strengthens the human family,” he said.
Exposure to decline and fragility, he noted, enriches young people. Conversely, he says, “there is a gift in being old, understood as abandoning oneself to the care of others”.
Since his knee gave way, Francis had to rely, reluctantly at first, on others to get around. And while his speeches draw heavily on the lessons of biblical characters, he also peppered them with his own experiences “You tell me; I have to get around in a wheelchair, huh? he said in a speech. “But that’s how it is, that’s life.”
While Francis still occasionally uses a cane (“I think I can do it,” he said of walking around to greet reporters on the plane to Canada), he seems to have embraced the benefits of A wheelchair. After addressing a largely Indigenous congregation at an Edmonton church, he took a veritable ride among the cheering worshipers outside, causing a chaotic scene as his assistant even jumped a wheelie to do it get off on a sidewalk.
Seeing his joy in greeting the faithful and his commitment to acknowledging the past sins of his church made the possibility of resignation remote. But retirement, if not necessarily his own, has been on his mind.
In one of his teachings on aging, in Rome, he talked about making the most of retirement, especially when, due to declining birth rates in many countries, there were fewer grandchildren. to raise and because adult children often left. Medical advances had therefore created years of time to fill, he noted.
“I’m going to retire today,” he said, putting himself in the shoes of a retiree. “And I will have many years ahead of me, and what can I do in those years? How can I grow?
Francis, who also spoke of the difficulty of leaving the role of “protagonist”, said that if he retired, he would become bishop emeritus of Rome, probably returning to his first name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and hearing confessions in the basilica in Rome.
But for now, he clearly feels he has a lot to say and do, including a consistory next month that will create cardinals who will help choose his successor and the leadership of a church he is still trying to to change.
Tuesday at Lac Ste. Anne, his papal butler, led him to the edge of the lake, unlocked the pope’s footstools so his feet could touch the holy ground, and stepped back while Francis prayed alone.
Rochelle Knibb, 50, a Catholic from the Cree Nation, stood a few feet away with her mother, Margaret, 74, who was wearing a bandage on her arm.
“In our culture, we put our elders first. The pope does too,” Ms Knibb said, adding that she had seen the faces of all the elders in hers.
“People take care of him, which is good,” she said. “This is also what I wish for our elders.”