He limped with difficulty to the waiting wheelchair when Pope Francis arrived in Canada this week and then stood still while photographers captured close-ups of the sight of an assistant adjusting the pontiff’s footrests.
The world watched as he collected his courage and gripped the arms of the assistant who hoisted him out of his wheelchair on a makeshift stage outside an Indigenous graveyard in Alberta.
In a shrine decorated with the crutches and canes of those who had been healed, hundreds of devotees screamed in unison as the pope’s wheelchair came loose and lunged dangerously forward in Lac Ste. Anne, a rural lake known for its miraculous healing abilities.
The Vatican’s live TV stream abruptly ended. One of the main purposes of Francis’s visit was to observe him in his growing fragility and age.
While the pontiff’s primary goal in Canada was to offer an apology to Indigenous peoples for the atrocities committed in church-run residential schools, his trip also served as a pilgrimage of senescence, in which he used his own vulnerability to call for respect for the elderly in a world increasingly populated by them. The pontiff is 85 years old.
Francis remarked during a Mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, one of the few events on a papal travel itinerary that was significantly lighter than normal, that “a future in which the old are not put aside because, from a ‘practical’ viewpoint, they are no longer useful” needs to be developed. It is a future he hopes will not disregard the care and attention that the elderly need.
The dignity of the elderly is not a new issue for Pope Francis, who has been slowed down by major intestinal surgery and has damaged knee ligaments and sciatica.
Parkinson’s disease destroyed John Paul II in his latter years, causing him to spend much of his time hunched over in bed. Some saw his illness as a sign of his spirituality, echoing Christ’s crucifixion.
For others, it was a troubling fall and prompted concerns about the Roman Catholic Church’s administration. Francis’ physical deterioration has thrown a shadow over his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who cited his fading vitality as the cause for his departure.
According Pope Francis, resigning has “never crossed my mind,” although he did add his typical qualifier in a recent Reuters interview: “My calculation may alter if poor health makes it difficult for me to lead the church”.
Francis, on the other hand, is attempting to transform contemporary culture so that it is more welcoming to the elderly, while Benedict opted out and John Paul II was forced to put his sick self front and centre due to illness.
“The aged can teach us that we all are, in truth, delicate,” said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Vatican’s most senior Vatican official, in a recent interview.
As Archbishop Paglia said, “ageing is one of the major issues of the 21st century.” Paglia also serves as the chair of an Italian Health Ministry group charged with reforming Italy’s health and social care systems to better serve its ageing population.
According to a United Nations estimate, the number of persons 60 and older will outnumber those under the age of 15.
Longevity research and medical advances, according to Archbishop Paglia, have resulted in “a new generation of elderly people.” When it comes to the economics, politics, and even the spirituality of a culture preoccupied with living longer, he said, “It’s a paradox.”
Francis has taken a particular interest in elderly people since he was elected pope at the age of 76. On Heaven and Earth, he claims that the neglect of elder health care amounts to “covert euthanasia” and that the elderly are often “stored away in nursing homes like an overcoat that is hung in the closet during the summer.”
When he was Pope, Francis starred in a Netflix documentary on ageing and often criticised the “throwaway society” in which elderly people are considered as disposable.
The World Youth Day ceremonies he hosted in 2013 were a time for him to pay tribute to the elderly. He washed and kissed the feet of elderly and wheelchair-bound persons in 2014 as part of a pre-Easter rite intended to emphasise his dedication to serving mankind. For the “forgotten” in 2021, he organised a World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly.
As a result, Archbishop Paglia had his staff create a “new paradigm” for caring for the elderly in Italian nursing homes during some of the most harrowing days of the Covid epidemic.