What the Pope's Message Says About the Elderly

According to Bishop Léonard, Philosopher and Theologian

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 27, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Bishop André-Mutien Léonard of Namur, Belgium, was called to Rome to present this year’s papal Lenten Message, which is an appeal to love the life of the elderly.

In this interview with ZENIT, Bishop Léonard, 64, explains that the theme of the message — «Loving the Lord … means life to you, and length of days» — is particularly forceful, as the one who writes is an elderly man who shows the world every day that all life is worth living.

Q: You have just presented, together with Archbishop Paul Cordes, John Paul II’s Message for Lent 2005. The Pontifical Council «Cor Unum» calls the attention of Catholics every year to the charitable dimension of Lent. This year, John Paul II has called you, who are a philosopher, theologian and pastor, to present this message. What is the novelty?

Bishop Léonard: What is characteristic of this message is that it calls attention to the condition of elderly people.

In Western countries, where the demography is generally catastrophic and where a very marked aging of the population will be experienced, this issue will be very important. Therefore, it is important to take into account some points of reference.

Moreover, this message has another amazing characteristic; it is written by an elderly Pope, profoundly marked by suffering and sickness. When John Paul II reminds us that one cannot say that a person, weakened by sickness or age, is useless and is no more than a burden to society, his word is incarnated in the witness he gives to the world.

His recent pilgrimage to Lourdes was, from this point of view, of exceptional eloquence. A sick one among the sick, at the limit of his strength, he witnessed in the name of all persons eroded by age or sickness, that they always have an important place in society.

The testimony of the Pope’s weakness is perhaps the strongest of all his pontificate. Already St. Paul had said, «My power is made perfect in weakness.»

Q: To whom is the message addressed? to specialists? to people with the capacity to make decisions?

Bishop Léonard: This message, clearly, is addressed implicitly to politicians and those responsible for public health, encouraging them in face of temptations which suggest that life advanced in age, disabled or terminal, does not really merit all the respect due to a human person.

At the same time, seeing the positive sides of present-day society, the Pope promotes forcefully the progress made in supporting very elderly or sick people, especially thanks to the development of palliative care.

However, beyond public authorities or health specialists, John Paul II addresses each one of us so that, wherever we are, and first of all in the family realm, we show respect and esteem for older people.

Q: John Paul II wrote the encyclical «Evangelium Vitae,» and, before that, the instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith «Donum Vitae» was published. Have these teachings been welcomed by Christian communities? What must be done so that they will be transmitted to the younger generations, and lived?

Bishop Léonard: «Evangelium Vitae» and «Donum Vitae» are treasures that are largely unknown and little used. It is up to pastors, bishops and priests especially to make them known, to have them pass through the media, and touch the hearts of young people. Often, these texts are put aside regarded primarily as a series of prohibitions.

In this way, there is the impression that the Church always says «no» to everything. However, the Church says «yes» first of all to the dignity of the human person, which implies immediately, of course, to say «no» to everything that harms him.

Whoever says «no» to dictatorship says «yes,» above all, to democratic liberties. Whoever says «no» to anti-Semitism or racism, says «yes,» above all, to respect for the human person, regardless of his or her race or religion.

In the same way, when the Church says «no» to abortion or euthanasia, it is saying «yes» to the personal dignity of what we all once were, a human embryo and fetus, and what, perhaps, we will be one day, namely, a person who is economically not profitable and biologically poorly endowed. But at all times, such persons are human persons worthy of infinite respect.

Q: This message on life is published on the anniversary of the commemoration of the discovery of the Auschwitz death camp, where the Pope sent Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, as papal legate. Perhaps it is an accident, but isn’t it a question in the end of learning to love and respect human life so that such a tragedy will not be repeated? Don’t you think that in defending life we are fighting against the «demons» inherited from the past?

Bishop Léonard: I don’t think this coincidence was desired, and it would not be appropriate to take advantage of it, assimilating problems that are extremely different, although they have in common the crucial issue of absolute respect for the innocent human person.

In any case, it is historically true that National Socialism made use of theses such as those of Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche who, in 1922, and without any relation to Hitler’s anti-Semitism, legitimated juridically and medically «the destruction of lives that are not worth living.»

Whoever opens the door to euthanasia, should be aware of the demons he or she runs the risk of welcoming.

Q: This is a Lenten message. What consequences could it have for the life of believers during these 40 days?

Bishop Léonard: In his message, the Pope reminds us that elderly people in general have more time to pay more attention to the most profound questions of life, death and eternity. It’s true.

But without the need of waiting until we are old or sick — although perhaps we are already in this situation — we can learn from them.

To think of old age and of the end of life on earth is not to think of something lugubrious or macabre. On the contrary, it sheds a bright light on our present existence and leads us to appreciate better each instant of our present life. From this point of view, John Paul II’s message is also stimulating.

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