Pope Francis is well into his eighties, moves about in a wheelchair, and has had his overall health questioned. It is understandable, therefore, that his thoughts would begin to move to his own mortality. In a novel way, the Pope has recently connected the Assumption of Mary to what we can expect in our future. He proposes;
“I would like to conclude the cycle of catecheses on old age with this image of the Virgin assumed into heaven….We recently celebrated the Assumption into heaven of the Mother of Jesus. This mystery illuminates the fulfillment of the grace that shaped Mary’s destiny, and it also illuminates our destination. Theology has always reflected on the relationship of this singular ‘assumption’ with death, which the dogma does not define. I think it would be even more important to make explicit the relationship of this mystery with the resurrection of the Son, which opens the way for the generation of life for us all. In the divine act of reuniting Mary with the Risen Christ, the normal bodily corruption of human death is not simply transcended — not only this — the bodily assumption of the life of God is anticipated. In fact, the destiny of the resurrection that pertains to us is anticipated: because, according to Christian faith, the Risen One is the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. The Risen Lord is the one who went first, who rose before everyone; then we will go, this is our destiny: to rise again. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he describes it as a wedding feast; as a party with friends; as the work that makes the house perfect. It is the surprise that makes the harvest richer than the sowing. In our old age, the importance of the many ‘details’ of which life is made — a caress, a smile, a gesture, an appreciated effort, an unexpected surprise, a hospitable cheerfulness, a faithful bond — becomes more acute. The essentials of life, which we hold most dear as we approach our farewell, become definitively clear to us. See: this wisdom of old age is the place of our gestation, which illuminates the lives of children, of young people, of adults, of the entire community. We, the elderly should be this for others: light for others. Let us hope for this fullness of life that awaits us all, when the Lord calls us. May the Mother of the Lord and our Mother, who has preceded us to heaven, restore to us the eager anticipation of expectation.”
Pope Francis stressed that the “wisdom of old age is the place of our gestation, which illuminates the lives of children, of young people, of adults, of the entire community.” The Church’s “Justice and Peace” Office teaches us that our Church teaches and reminds us that is not just care and respect that older people need, but their autonomy, gifts, self-determination and participation in society do not, and should not, be taken away simply because of age. In his 1984 Address to Older People Pope John Paul II said, ‘you are not and must not consider yourselves to be on the margins of the life of the Church, passive elements in a world in excessive motion, but active subjects of a period in human existence which is rich in spirituality and humanity. You still have a mission to fulfil and a contribution to make’.
In his Encyclical about caring for creation, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis teaches us that the throwaway consumerist culture that is damaging our planet is also infecting the way we treat each other. For older people this is especially dangerous because our relationship to the aged has significantly and negatively changed over the last century or so and as we come more and more to value people by what they can produce in economic terms, we value less and less both their innate worthiness as children of God, but also we come not to see them as whole human beings, but rather broken down, useless parts no longer needed in the capitalist mill. Further, as our culture grows more individualistic seeing older people, and all those who cannot participate ‘properly’ in the economic sphere, we lose both our capacity and desire to be in relationship with each other and so it is so much easier to discard those we don’t see as useful to us. This kind of culture led Pope Francis to say, ‘the elderly are discarded with attitudes of abandonment which are a real and proper hidden euthanasia’.
Pope Francis is following the teaching on the dignity of humankind. Dignity is the intrinsic worth and inestimable value of a human being. We are given this dignity at the moment of Creation, being made in the image and likeness of God, and the Incarnation, the Word made flesh. By virtue of these moments, the dignity of human being must always be protected until the person passes to the hand of God.