Pope Benedict XVI at the end of his general weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. The Pope is due to visit Turkey from November 28 to December 1, 2006. (Photo by Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Benedict XVI and the dignity of age

Benedict taught us how to treat the elderly

By 2016, Pope Benedict XVI’s private secretary described him as “like a candle … slowly, serenely fading.” The emeritus pontiff had resigned from the papacy in 2013 after deciding that he had neither the physical nor mental capacity to remain in the position. He passed away, on New Year’s Eve of 2022, at the age of 95. His successor, Pope Francis, is himself 86, and has been suffering from pain and ill-health for some years. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had passed away at the age of 84 after long bouts of illness and declining health, suffering in later life from degenerative disease and the lasting effects of two assassination attempts.

The papacy is changing. People are now living much longer than they were a century ago, and popes, like monarchs, are getting older. 

Recent popes seem to have reflected at length — perhaps unsurprisingly — on the nature of old age. Pope Francis has emphasised a form of love towards the elderly as honour,  and has instituted a day for “Grandparents and the Elderly”. His twitter account is practically an ode to the aged in society: in 2018, he wrote that “Grandparents are a treasure in the family. Please, take care of your grandparents: love them and let them talk to your children!” Three years later insisting that “Grandparents are the uniting link between generations to transmit to the young the experience of life and faith,” and in 2015 stated that Christians honour the Fourth Commandment through “loving visits to our ageing grandparents.”

These implorations are necessary: the elderly exist on the margins of society, unseen by many, spoken to by few outside of obligatory encounters with service or care staff.

In June of this year, Pope Francis addressed a homily to youth: “I worry when I see a society full of people in constant motion, too caught up in their own affairs to have time for a glance, a greeting or a hug … Our grandparents, who nourished our own lives, now hunger for our attention and our love; they long for our closeness. Let us lift up our eyes and see them, even as Jesus sees us.”

How Jesus views individuals — especially the most maligned, forgotten, or vulnerable — is increasingly at odds with how an increasingly-secular society views them. 

In truth, without a Christian understanding of the fundamental value of life, we allow the most vulnerable of society to perish. Not contributing enough to GDP? Unable to feed oneself? Incontinent? Repulsive? Alone on the street? I’m afraid the spreadsheet suggests that your life is simply not worth sustaining.

Consider the raft of developments heralded by Canada’s new assisted dying programme. Just under two years into this great leap forward in compassionate care, individuals are permitted for voluntary euthanasia because they live in poverty, are scared to be alone during another lockdown, suffer from hearing loss, or are unable to find appropriate housing. Each one of these instances is easily fixed. The issue at hand is not that these concerns cannot be alleviated, but that a secular state and age would rather kill its vulnerable than expend disproportionate energy on honouring and loving them as individuals. We of the 21st century must not reduce individuals of infinite value to a loving God to mere numbers on a spreadsheet. We must not allow data and base forms of utilitarianism to strip away our understanding of humanity. Children are born with an innate love and kindness that is slowly educated out of us by those with little sense of duty, charity, or honour. It is the elderly who stand at the frontier of this experimentation.

One of the foremost intellectuals on the nature of human dignity and suffering was the late emeritus pope

Debates on Canadian assisted death programmes reveal a tremendous gulf between those who believe that euthanasia represents kindness and dignity, and those who believe the opposite to be true. One of the foremost intellectuals on the nature of human dignity and suffering was the late emeritus pope. Indeed, it is only through a Christian theology — of which, for decades, he was the preeminent theologian — that suffering can be truly and widely understood as an integral part of life, dignity, and love. “It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in one encyclical. “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”

During his teenage years, the emeritus pope (then Joseph Ratzinger) was conscripted into the Nazi Youth and saw a cousin of the same age with Down Syndrome taken away for “therapy” — annihilated as an undesirable under the Aktion T4 programme. The capacity for suffering in life is great: it does not negate, but rather (when properly understood and addressed), increases love.

Pope Benedict suffered greatly in life, as every elderly individual does in time. A Christian understanding of the world allows for suffering, understanding it not as a meaningless cruelty but as a means to love Christ and one another to a greater depth. To try to remove suffering from life — not by positive acts of love and charity, but by ignoring the sick, the elderly, the lonely (and the feelings of discomfort they justly inspire on our conscience), or, worst of all, by killing them — is the greatest injustice and cruelty. The elderly deserve dignity and compassion. The elderly deserve love.

Joseph Ratzinger was once a boy who suffered under Nazi domination, and rose to become one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century, a spiritual leader of over a billion, and the head of the largest religion on earth. None of that had any bearing whatsoever on whether he, lying as an old, ill man, deserved dignity and love. 

Contempt and ambivalence shame the elderly around us

Contempt and ambivalence shame the elderly around us, and, in a subtle, pernicious manner, dehumanises them. When we begin to look upon the old and forgotten in our society as unworthy, we treat them accordingly. Love for the elderly, according to Pope Francis, is “an ambition that will bring radiance to the youth who inherit its best qualities.” Love for the elderly is a crucial component in our own sense of humanity. In the words of the late pope emeritus, ‘To have Christian hope means to know about evil and yet to go to meet the future with confidence. The core of faith rests upon accepting being loved by God, and therefore to believe is to say Yes, not only to him, but to creation, to creatures, above all, to men, to try to see the image of God in each person and thereby to become a lover. That’s not easy, but the basic Yes, the conviction that God has created men, that he stands behind them, that they aren’t simply negative, gives love a reference point that enables it to ground hope on the basis of faith.’

In an increasingly post-Christian, alienated world, we may just find more and more elderly succumbing to loneliness, disregard, and assisted death. When we take away a Christian understanding of the inherent dignity of life, little compelling cause seems to exist for treating the most vulnerable with dignity. 

Pope Benedict now lies in state, the ultimate dignity afforded to the remains of one deceased. His presence, and words, allow us to remember that the elderly are not alien, and are not divorced from the reality of a bright, burning life. They are instead candles who burn — if only a little dimmer each year. 

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