“The elderly are the Church and, therefore, they are protagonists of the Church’s pastoral” care. The elderly evangelize, they transmit the faith in the family, they collaborate in thousands of tasks . . . Finally, the elderly are — as Pope Francis has pointed out many times –, an inexhaustible source of experiences and wisdom, which must not be discarded,” says Father Jose Ignacio Figueroa in an interview with Zenit.

Father Figueroa is a priest of the Diocese of Alcala de Henares, in Madrid, and, in June of 2018, he was appointed, by the Spanish Episcopal Conference, General Adviser of the “Ascending Life” Movement of Lay Apostolate for the Elderly and Retired. He is a participant in the Frist International Congress of Pastoral Care for the Elderly, entitled “The Richness of the Years,” and he intervened today, January 28, 2020, in the press conference to present the Congress.

In fact, this First Congress, geared to reflect on the pastoral needs of the elderly in society, will be held from January 29-31, 2020, in Rome’s Augustinianum Congress Center.

Pope Francis’ Request

This event, organized by the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life, is being held in response to a request of Pope Francis who, on numerous occasions, has highlighted the role of the elderly in the transmission of the faith, in the dialogue with young people, and in the protection of peoples’ roots.

In face of the prolongation of life and the aging of the population, the Holy Father acknowledged that “Christian spirituality has been taken by surprise,” and “a renewed ecclesial reflection” is necessary on what he describes as “the blessing of a long life.”

At the same time, the Pontiff has asked long-lived people to be protagonists of the Church’s work and “not to throw the oars in the boat,” because we must “invent old age.”

This first international meeting, dedicated to the pastoral care of the elderly, will reflect on how to address the throwaway culture in the case of this age group, on its role in the family, and on its peculiar vocation in the Church. Some 550 experts and pastoral agents from 60 countries will take part in the meeting. Then on Friday, January 31, the Pope will receive them in audience.

Here is a ZENIT translation of the full interview with Father Jose Ignacio Figueroa.

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–Q: Statistics and forecasts demonstrate that the pastoral care of the elderly will mark the Church’s life in the future. From your experience, what is the current picture of this age group in the Church?

Father Figueroa: In the first place, I don’t think we should speak of the Church of the future, without recognizing that already, in the present, the elderly are protagonists of the Church’s pastoral care in her daily life. Every day we open our parishes and places of worship and we find them full of elderly people. It is the retired that have an enormous role in tasks, such as social assistance in the parish and diocesan Caritas, collaborating in volunteer tasks. They are the ones that are able to collaborate in ordinary pastoral care, teaching catechism to children, parents, engaged couples and adults . . . In other words, not only are the elderly the future of the Church but, given that we are immersed in increasingly aging societies, at present, they already assume an enormous amount of ecclesial tasks.

On the other hand, it is worrying that the progressive process of secularization, which our society is suffering, can also affect the world of the elderly. We cannot take for granted that the elderly are evangelized. <However>”, many of them are so and, precisely because of that, after their retirement, when they have more free time, they collaborate in ecclesial tasks. But, we are aware that the new generations of people, who reach the age of retirement, were not raised in a society where it was normal to be Catholic and it’s not habitual with them to live the doctrinal and moral postulates that the Catholic Church preaches. It is precisely them with whom we must be especially concerned, given that they are also the recipients of the proclamation of Salvation offered by the Risen Christ.

–Q: How did you receive the idea of the holding of this Congress?

-Father Figueroa: “Ascending Life,” as Movement of the elderly, existed for several years, on one hand asking our Bishops to be concerned about structuring — in the dioceses that make up the pilgrim Church in Spain, a specific pastoral for and of the elderly, where the latter discover that the Church is close to them in a world that, as Pope Francis points out, is immersed in the throwaway culture and that counts on them to be at the same time witnesses of the Good News of the Risen Christ.

On the other hand, in the Permanent Commission of “Ascending Life” in Spain, the desire arose to share with the Holy Father our concerns and the desire to give visibility to that genuine army of the retired, which can be counted on  –from the everyday life of the family and the Christian communities — to be at the service of the Church.

One can understand that, with these premises, the news of the Congress has been an injection of yoy and hope for the more than 20,000 elderly that are part of “Ascending Life.”

–Q: Let’s talk about the “Ascending Life” Movement in Spain . . .

-Father Figueroa: It’s already over three decades that this Movement, which was born in the peripheries of Paris in the decade of the 50s of the last century, was implanted in Spain. Since then, “Ascending Life” has been set in motion in practically all the dioceses of our territory, having, basically, as place of encounter, the parishes, in small groups that engage in a prayerful reading of the Sunday Gospel and that, through some simple scripts of favorite topics related to the reality that the elderly live, share experiences, memories, anxieties, and hopes. The identity of “Ascending Life” is made up of three pillars: friendship among the members, which rises from the common friendship with Jesus Christ; spirituality lived from the experience of the shared and meditated Word; and the apostolate lived from the heart of the Movement and at the service of the Church, to which as members and as institution, we try to serve with fidelity.

For a few years now, also because the social reality of the elderly is changing, “Ascending Life” groups have begun to emerge in residences for the elderly. Either because members of “Ascending Life” who have known the Movement in their parishes and have become residents and established groups of the Movement there, or because the Movement itself has been made available in a residence to implant new groups there. At present, we are reflecting further on this reality and we are beginning to form leaders of those groups, taking into account their specific situation.

–Q: How has this Movement prepared for this Congress?

–Father Figueroa: As it’s the first Congress that has been organized, we have simply put ourselves at the service of the organization — the Department of the Elderly of the Dicastery of the Laity, the Family, and Life — for whatever is necessary and is in our competence. In fact, the President of “Ascending Life International” (Vie Montante International), Monique Bodhuin, will give a lovely talk on the spiritual accompaniment of the elderly and I myself am taking part in the press conference — meeting point — of the launching of the Congress.

In addition, we have made a great effort of diffusion of this beautiful Vatican initiative, so that “Ascending Life” in Spain doesn’t lose this opportunity; therefore, seventy of us of several dioceses of our country will take part, and try afterward to diffuse what we will experience these days in Rome.

–Q: What are the expectations for this First <Congress>?

–Father Figueroa: I think especially that we can summarize in two words the enthusiasm brought by those of us who have had the good fortune to live this event personally: visibility and diffusion.

In the first place, it’s about making visible not only the millions of elderly who suffer the alluded throwaways culture — those that are alone, those that have to support, with their fragile retirement pensions, their children and grandchildren, those that are used and sometimes mistreated by their own families, those that are ignored because they belong to a generation that doesn’t think the same way, etc, –. We must also value all those elderly that are transmitters of the faith in the family, collaborators, and volunteers in multiple ecclesial tasks, animators of other elderly that fall apart in their new situation of retirement . . .

In the second place, we must spread the Church’s interest in starting a pastoral <ministry> of the elderly, in which those that go before us in life’s race are not only the recipients of our pastoral action. Of course, when an elderly person is alone, he must be accompanied, and when he is sick, he must be cared for, and when he needs the comfort of the Sacraments, he must be given them.

However, the elderly don’t only need the Church; they are the Church and, therefore, protagonists of the Church’s pastoral care: the elderly evangelize, transmit the faith in the family, collaborate in thousands of tasks . . . The elderly are, finally — as Pope Francis has highlighted so man times –, an inexhaustible source of experiences and wisdom that we must not discard.

–Q: The Pope has pointed out on several occasions that an “alliance” is necessary between young people and the elderly, that “dreamy grandparents” are needed who offer “visions to youth so that the latter have hope in the future. How do you think this union between generations can be achieved?

-Father Figueroa: It can be achieved precisely in reflecting further on this key of visibility. The Church has much to contribute in this connection and it’s lovely that the Holy Father, on creating this new Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life, wanted the world of the elderly not to be disconnected from the family.

It seems that often, in the best of cases, the family is reduced to parents and children; however, grandparents have increasingly a fundamental role to play in education and transmission of the faith in the family. A genuine family pastoral ministry cannot be on the margin of the pastoral care of the elderly.

–Q: What can the Catholic community, in general, do for the elderly?

–Father Figueroa: The Holy Father’s intention is that in all the levels of the Church — Episcopal Conferences, dioceses and parishes — Departments are created of Elderly Pastoral Care and from the humble experience of this Movement, “Ascending Life“ can be — and is willing to be without seeking the least leadership — a good support to accompany the elderly in their race toward the goal.

Translation by Virginia M. Forrester

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