ROME – After spending Wednesday afternoon participating in the first Vatican-sponsored International Congress for the Pastoral Ministry to the Elderly in Rome, a group of 45 “pilgrims” from Spain has a message to the organizers: “It’s not about what the Church can do for us, but about what we can do for the Church.”

The words belong to Maria Jose, an 86-year old grandmother of eight from Madrid, Spain, but they could be credited to several of the ten or so “people with accumulated youth” who spoke with Crux Jan. 29. The youngest was Manuel, 68, hailing from Bilbao.

During a Q&A session of the Jan. 29-31 congress being organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life – headed by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell – Manuel took the microphone and said that he’d heard about “what the Church can do for old people,” but not about what those who are not so young, but still very much active, can do for the institution.

“So many things!” he said, when Crux posed the same question to him. “We can take part in the Church’s charitable works by, yes, helping other elderly people. But we can visit prisons, we can work in soup kitchens … there’s a priest shortage in Europe: We can help distributing communion to those who can’t go to Mass.”

“You’re having eucharistic adoration, an elderly person is there,” said Esperanza. “You need someone to read at Mass? Not everyone over 50 is blind! You need someone to teach catechesis? Why not ask us? Many of us grew up in the faith, left the Church, and came back. We have a life experience that we can share. Let us share it.”

As a footnote, though all very much capable of reading, several of those who spoke with Crux in the lobby of the hotel where the group is staying did acknowledge they “were deaf,” which prompted them to speak over each other, the main reason why several of their last names got lost in transcription.

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Though most don’t know one another, as they hail from all over Spain, the pilgrims were guided in their week-long pilgrimage by Father Jose Ignacio Figueroa, the national leader of Vida Ascendente, a pastoral movement for retired and elderly people in Spain.

The priest sided with Manuel, saying that it’s important to change the “social and ecclesial view we have of older people.”

“We see them in their weakness, and as such, as someone we have to constantly care for,” Figueroa said. “But when you open a church, you see an old person who is cleaning the floor, who’s running the Caritas office, who is reading. We cannot simply ask what we can do for them, but also, how do we help them become evangelizers?”

“I’m in my 80s but there’s no need to be specific,” said Maria Dolores, but no matter one’s age, there’s always something to learn, especially when it comes to “the Word of God.”

Vida Ascendente, she explained, has three pillars: Friendship, spirituality and sharing. Friendship, she said, is “essential” for elderly people, “because we need to feel loved, wanted, useful for someone in some way.”

Spirituality in the movement is practiced through weekly meetings in small groups, where they read that week’s Sunday Gospel, and talk about how each one of them is putting those words into practice, living it in their daily lives.

According to Maria Dolores, sharing means “that which we freely received from God, we share through our living the faith, we share it with those who haven’t heard the Word of God, either because they’re far from the Church, or because, literally, have never been evangelized.”

This was an element that came up repeatedly during the group’s hour-long conversation with Crux: “Don’t assume that everyone who’s over 60 has opened the Bible, or knows how to pray the Our Father,” Maria Dolores said.

For this reason, the movement has long been asking for the Spanish bishops’ conference to produce a pastoral ministry for the elderly that does not mean “for the infirm,” or for “those who are dying.”

“There are guidelines for those who are making the first steps into the sacramental life of the Church, there’s marriage prep, there’s youth ministry, but there’s nothing for us,” she said, losing a battle to hide her exasperation. “We are both recipients of evangelization and evangelizing agents.”

She said that sometimes “we get frustrated, feel like throwing in the towel,” when it comes to helping younger generations avoid some of the mistakes that her generation made. But at the end of the day, “what really matters is our example of Christian life.”

“An old person who lives with pain, sometimes financial restraints, but still has a smile on their face, still lives with faith, is a witness,” Maria Dolores said. “When it comes to religious education, nothing is ever lost, because the seed has been planted. Teach your grandchildren to recite a prayer, even if your own children don’t fully remember how to do so. Eventually, I’ve learned, they will [remember].”

Maria Jose agrees: “Giving witness is key, because if there’s no witness, there’s no credibility. We have to be patient with those who are younger than us. Let them make their own path, learn from their own mistakes if they refuse to listen. They need to know that, even if they see us as a burden, we love them unconditionally. And at some point in their lives, that knowledge too will come in handy.”

Though some in the group found their faith after they retired from their daily jobs, others have been holding on to it through civil wars, world wars, famine, crisis and mourning. This is the case of Francisca, named not after St. Francis of Assisi but after Saint Frances of Rome, a 14th century Italian saint who was a wife, mother, mystic, organizer of charitable services and a Benedictine oblate who founded a religious community of oblates.

Every other sentence, Francisca brings up a saint, and much in her life is a “coincidence” with big dates for the Church, including the fact that “the only friend I have was in the hospital on Sunday … it was the Day of the Conversion of Peter. Maybe she needs to pray more!”

After being gravely ill for three years, her husband of over six decades died one Dec. 23: “We buried him on Christmas Eve, and we gathered to celebrate him on Christmas Day.”

Francisca is 88 and this pilgrimage to Rome was the first time she left Spain: “I grew up in a small village, one of those that are ‘ghost towns’ today. I still remember what it’s like to work the fields with two oxen, your hands blistered from removing weeds and your face tanned after days spent under the sun.”

She holds nothing in when speaking to Crux (including the fact that the journalist is “a little too chubby, even if it’s not polite to say so”). Her advice to those younger than her is that they “work hard, fight for life … you are becoming complacent. Walking through the streets of Rome, it’s easy to sit back and think ‘it’s all been invented, let’s relax.’ But no. You cannot take things for granted, and you have to make things better. In the Church, in society, in your own life.”

“Where are you going to start?” she asks.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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