LAK ST. ANNA, Alberta. When Pope Francis landed in Canada this week, he tumbled out of his car onto the tarmac, hobbled to a waiting wheelchair, and froze in place as cameras captured the spectacle of the pope’s assistant adjusting the pontiff’s footpegs at close range.
On a makeshift stage outside a First Nations cemetery in Alberta, the world watched as he rallied and grabbed the arms of an assistant who lifted him from his wheelchair.
In Lac Sainte. Annas, a remote lake known for its miraculous healing properties, hundreds of parishioners waiting for Francis in a temple adorned with crutches and canes of the healed gasped in unison as the pope’s wheelchair caught on a snag, and he lurched dangerously forward.
The video stream of the Vatican ends quickly. But to see Francis in his growing weakness and approaching old age was very important for his visit.
While the main mission of the pontiff in Canada was what he called “the pilgrimage of repentance” in apologize to the indigenous people for the terrible abuses they survived in church boarding schools, it was also a pilgrimage of aging in which the 85-year-old pontiff used his vulnerability to demand dignity for the elderly in a world they increasingly populated.
It is necessary to build “a future in which older people are not left out because they are no longer useful from a ‘practical’ point of view,” Francis said at a Mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, one of the few events. in the papal travel schedule, which was much lighter than usual. “A future that is not indifferent to the need of older people for care and listening,” he added.
Francis, heavier, slowed down major bowel surgery in the past year and suffering from knee ligament tearsand radiculitisnot the first pope to make the dignity of the elderly a central concern of his later papacy.
the once energetic John Paul II spent his later years hunched over, tormented by Parkinson’s disease. For some, his lamentation extolled his spirituality and reflected the suffering of Christ on the cross.
For others, it was a discouraging decline and raised questions about the governance of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, cited his waning energy as the reason his resignationhistorical break with papal practice, cast a shadow on Francis and his physical decline.
“I never thought about resigning,” Francis said in a recent interview. interview with Reutersbefore inserting your usual qualification that his calculation may change if, due to poor health, he could not manage the church.
But if Benedict refused, and a serious illness left John Paul II no choice but to put his illness first and foremost, Francis is purposefully and relentlessly trying to change modern society so that it becomes more hospitable to the old.
A senior Vatican official, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, said in a recent interview that he persuaded Francis to formulate a new church doctrine on aging that is also “proposed not by words but by the body” because, he said, “The old can teach us that in fact we are all fragile.”
“Aging is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century,” added Archbishop Paglia, who also chairs the Italian Health Ministry’s commission to reform health care and social care for the elderly in Italy, which has one of the world’s oldest populations. world.
According to a United Nations report, by 2050, the number of people aged 60 and over will exceed the number of people under the age of 15.
Archbishop Paglia said advances in longevity science and medicine have increased life expectancy by decades and created a “new population of older people.” But it also created controversy, he added, because a society obsessed with living longer hasn’t changed to accommodate older people, either economically, politically or even spiritually.
Even before he became pope at the age of 76, Francis paid special attention to the elderly. In Heaven and Earth, he said that ignoring the medical needs of older people constituted “hidden euthanasia” and that older people often “end up being kept in a nursing home like a coat hanging in a closet.” summer.”
Since becoming the Pope, he has appeared in a Netflix documentary on aging and regularly denounces the way older people are treated like trash in “disposable culture.”
In 2013, the year of his election, he used the World Youth Day celebration 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 installed annual World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly honor the “forgotten”.
It came during some of the worst days of the Covid pandemic and what Archbishop Paglia called a “massacre of the elderly” in Italian nursing homes prompted his office to develop a “new paradigm” for caring for the elderly.
This year, Francis has tried to give shape to that thinking. series of catechesis or religious instruction on aging.
According to the Vatican, he has given more than 15 speeches, three more are expected in August, and called the rapidly growing population of old people “the real new people” in human history. “There has never been so much as now, there has never been so much risk of being thrown out,” he said.
He lamented a society in which youth had a monopoly on “the full meaning of life, and old age simply represents its devastation and loss.”
He denounced a future in which technology, fascinated by the “myth of eternal youth” and “victory over death”, seeks to “keep the body alive with drugs and cosmetics that slow down, hide, erase old age.”
During speeches, Francis urged people not to “hide the fragility of old age” for fear of losing their dignity. Weakness, he argued, “is a lesson for all of us” and can lead to “irreplaceable” reform in society, because “the marginalization of older people – both conceptual and practical – corrupts all periods of life, not just old ones. age.”
He promoted dialogue between young and old, advocating the benefit of hearing a story directly from the people who lived it. He also said that time spent with old people makes people slow down, turn off their phones, and keep an eye on deeper clocks.
“When you get home and you see a grandparent who is probably no longer conscious or, I don’t know, partially speechless, and you stay with him or her, you are “wasting time, but this” waste time” strengthens the human family,” he said.
He noted that exposure to decadence and weakness enriches the youth. In response, he said: “There is a gift to be an elderly person, understood as giving oneself to the care of others.”
Since his knee failed, Francis has had to depend, seemingly reluctantly at first, on others to get around. And although his speeches are largely based on the lessons of biblical characters, he also seasoned them with his own experience: “You tell me; I have to move around in a wheelchair, huh?” he said in one speech. “But such is life.
If Francis still occasionally uses a cane (“I think I can do that,” he said of walking to greet reporters on a plane to Canada), he seems to have taken advantage of a wheelchair. After addressing the mostly Indigenous congregation at an Edmonton church, he made quite a walk among the cheering worshipers outside, making a chaotic scene when his assistant even wheeled out to push him onto the curb.
Looking at his joy in greeting the faithful and his willingness to acknowledge the past sins of his church, the possibility of resignation seemed remote. But retirement, though not necessarily his own, was on his mind.
In one of his teachings on aging in Rome, he talked about how to make the most of retirement, especially when declining birth rates in many countries have left fewer grandchildren to care for, and because adult children often left. Thus, medical advances have created years of time to fill, he noted.
“Today I will retire,” he said, putting himself in the place of a pensioner. “And there will be many years ahead of me, and what can I do in these years? How can I grow?”
Francis, who also talked about the difficulty of stepping out of the “protagonist” role. said that, if he did retire, he would become an honorary bishop of Rome, probably reverting to his real name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and hearing a confession in a Roman basilica.
But for now, he clearly feels he has a lot to say and do, including a consistory next month that will create cardinals to help choose his successor and the direction of the church he is still trying to change.
Tuesday at Lac Ste. Anna, his papal butler, drove him to the lakeshore, unlocked the pope’s footrests so his feet could touch sacred ground, and stepped back as Francis prayed alone.
Rochelle Nibb, 50, a Cree Catholic, stood a few feet from her mother, Margaret, 74, who had a bandage on her arm.
“In our culture, we put something else first. Dad does it too.” said Knibb, adding that she saw in him the face of everything old.
“People are taking care of him, which is good,” she said. “That’s what I want for us and elsewhere.”