LONDON, SEPT. 18, 2010 ( Caring for society's oldest members isn't an act of generosity, but rather an act of gratitude, says Benedict XVI.

Upon visiting St. Peter's Residence for the elderly in the London borough of Lambeth, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Pope reflected on the growing presence of elderly as a "blessing for society," and on old age as "among the most spiritually fruitful years of our lives."

"Every generation can learn from the experience and wisdom of the generation that preceded it," the Holy Father said. "Indeed the provision of care for the elderly should be considered not so much an act of generosity as the repayment of a debt of gratitude."

"God wills a proper respect for the dignity and worth, the health and well-being of the elderly," the Pontiff continued. "Through her charitable institutions in Britain and beyond, the Church seeks to fulfill the Lord’s command to respect life, regardless of age or circumstances."

After affirming the "unique gift" of life, which is "God’s alone to give and to take," Benedict XVI offered a reflection on suffering.

"One may enjoy good health in old age," the Pope said, "but equally Christians should not be afraid to share in the suffering of Christ, if God wills that we struggle with infirmity."

"My predecessor, the late Pope John Paul, suffered very publicly during the last years of his life," Benedict XVI continued. "It was clear to all of us that he did so in union with the sufferings of our Savior.

"His cheerfulness and forbearance as he faced his final days were a remarkable and moving example to all of us who have to carry the burden of advancing years."

Father and brother

The Holy Father told those present that his visit to the center was "not only as a father, but also as a brother who knows well the joys and the struggles that come with age."

"Our long years of life afford us the opportunity to appreciate both the beauty of God’s greatest gift to us, the gift of life, as well as the fragility of the human spirit," he affirmed. "Those of us who live many years are given a marvelous chance to deepen our awareness of the mystery of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

"As the normal span of our lives increases, our physical capacities are often diminished; and yet these times may well be among the most spiritually fruitful years of our lives."

Benedict XVI urged those present to use their last years as "an opportunity to remember in affectionate prayer all those whom we have cherished in this life, and to place all that we have personally been and done before the mercy and tenderness of God."

"This will surely be a great spiritual comfort and enable us to discover anew his love and goodness all the days of our life," he added.

Jeanne Jugan founded the Little Sisters of the Poor in France in 1839, and the sisters arrived in England in 1851. They have been serving the elderly poor in London at the present site in Lambeth since 1863, but in 1984 they demolished the old existing structure and built the modern St. Peter's Residence in its place.

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