VATICAN CITY — Handing on the faith from generation to generation requires listening personally and directly to older people’s lived experiences and stories of faith, Pope Francis said.
“Today the catechism of Christian initiation generously draws on the Word of God and conveys accurate information on dogmas, the morals of the faith and the sacraments,” the pope said at his weekly general audience March 23.
“What is often lacking, however, is a knowledge of the church that comes from listening to and witnessing the real history of the faith and the life of the church community, from the beginning to the present day,” he said.
The pope’s catechesis was part of a series of talks dedicated to the meaning and value of “old age” and focused on the role of memory and personal witness in handing down the faith.
“Listening personally and directly to the story of lived faith, with all its highs and lows, is irreplaceable,” Pope Francis said.
The pope gave an example from his own experience, saying, “I learned hatred and anger for war from my grandfather,” who fought in northern Italy during World War I. “He passed on to me this rage at war because he told me about the suffering of a war,” and this can only be learned from passing it down from one generation to another.
Being able to learn about the faith from written materials, films and the Internet is useful, he said, but it “will never be the same thing” as communicating face-to-face through storytelling.
Older people, in particular, who have so much experience and receive “the gift of a lucid and passionate testimony” of their own history are “an irreplaceable blessing,” said the pope.
A first-person transmission of the faith, “which is true and proper tradition,” is seriously lacking today and the situation is only getting worse, he said, because today’s culture believes the elderly are useless and “must be discarded.”
Also, he said, this path of handing on the faith from generation to generation seems to be hindered in families, society and Christian communities themselves because of today’s emphasis on being “politically correct.”
When handing on the faith lacks “the passion of ‘lived history,’“ he said, “how can it draw people to choose love forever, fidelity to the given word, perseverance in dedication, compassion for the wounded and disheartened faces?”
However, he said, these testimonies must be honest and faithful to the Word of God.
Testimonies that are not faithful are those that reflect an “ideology that bends history to its own schemes,” promote “propaganda that adapts history to promote its own group” or transform history into “a tribunal in which the past is condemned, and any future is discouraged.”
“No. To be faithful is to tell history as it is; and only those who have lived it can tell it well,” which is why it is so important for everyone, especially children, to listen to the elderly, he said.
The right kind of witness is seen in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, which “honestly tell the blessed story of Jesus without hiding the mistakes, misunderstandings and even betrayals of the disciples,” he said.
The story of Moses, too, is also an example of narrating the history of faith as “a story capable of recalling God’s blessings with emotion and our failings with sincerity,” the pope added.
Catechesis, he said, should include “the habit of listening: to the lived experience of the elderly; to the candid confession of the blessings received from God, which we must cherish; and to the faithful testimony of our own failures of fidelity, which we must repair and correct.”
Faith cannot be merely handed on with books but passed on “from hand to hand” with the familiar speech, stories and witness between grandparents and grandchildren, between parents and their children, he said.
“This is the reason dialogue in a family is so important, the dialogue of children with their grandparents, who are the ones who have the wisdom of the faith,” he said.