Is there a place at your table for the people of wisdom?

Among many others, one of Pope Francis’ gifts to the Church and the world is the example he embodies of the wisdom, faith, energy and vitality of the elderly. Pope Francis will turn 80 just before Christmas, and we don’t see any slowing down or stepping back from travel or daily engagement with God’s people.

Not all septuagenarians, octogenarians or nonagenarians are fit and well, and not all have the consolation of family, neighbours and friends to sustain and engage with them. All, however, deserve to live with comfort, security and dignity, particularly in a nation like ours with so much to offer. 

It is particularly to those of us who are family, friends and neighbours of the women and men in their later years that the Australian Catholic Bishops 2016 Social Justice Statement, A Place at the Table: Social Justice in an Ageing Society, is directed.

The statement was launched shortly before Social Justice Sunday, 25 September. One of the speakers at the launch event, Executive Officer of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (ACSJC), John Ferguson, said, “In this Statement, the Catholic Bishops of Australia celebrate the value, the dignity and the significant contribution of older people to the life of the community. The Bishops highlight how the most vulnerable members of our community must be protected from the experience of poverty, isolation, abuse or any circumstance in which they are made to feel they are a burden to their family or society. The Statement calls on the Catholic community, politicians and young and old alike, to foster communities of mercy and love, where every person can take their rightful place at the table.”

The Statement includes an introduction by Bishop of Parramatta and Chair of ACSJC, Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFMConv. He writes, “At this time in Australia, we face a threefold challenge: to work for an inclusive society that brings older people into the heart of the community; to ensure the dignity and care of people who are frail and most vulnerable to neglect or abuse; and to foster solidarity among all generations, recognising the special affinity that exists between young and old.”

Each of us is ageing, and each of us can think of the people in our lives who are aged. Speaking at the launch of the Statement, Sr Patty Fawkner sgs shared the story of her mother.

“My mother, Betty, has had dementia for ten years and it gets inexorably worse. Betty doesn’t think about the future and she’s lost all memory of the past. She lives in the now … The heart of the present moment is where God is. God reveals Godself to Moses as I AM, not I will be, or I was, but the enigmatic I AM, the One who speaks a word of love to me in the here, in the now.

“Betty wears no masks; plays no roles; has no duties. She is simply herself. I’m mindful of May Sarton’s poem:

Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other peoples’ faces.

Betty’s treasure is not what she does, nor what she produces, but who she is.

“Some people tell me that they will never allow themselves to get to the stage Betty is now. ‘Just give me the end-it-all pill,’ one says, half joking….But the elderly expose the myth of total independence and narcissistic control. We live in an utterly inter-dependent world. It is not all about me.…

“It takes humility not to be jealous and resentful of the young. It is humbling to allow myself to be cared for and to realise that sometimes in our helplessness, brokenness and passivity, we can give something deeper than we can with our strength and achievements.”

A key concern of the Statement is to address the risk of reducing an individual’s contribution to society to his or her ‘net worth’. While calls for a longer working life persist, there are many who are unable to work beyond a certain age due to physical limitations or health issues. And people get tired! However, the Statement quotes the 2015 Intergenerational Report which “notes that people aged 65 and over are retiring and taking on other activities in their communities at exactly the time in their lives when public spending per person increases. The implication is that leaving the labour force reduces people’s contribution to the community and makes them an economic burden. This ignores the true value of older people’s contribution.”

Pope Francis has written, “When money becomes the end and the motive of every activity and of every venture, then the utilitarian perspective and brute logic – which do not respect people – prevail, resulting in the widespread collapse of the values of solidarity and respect for the human being.” (Address to participants in the World Congress of Accountants, 14 November 2014).

A Place at the Table: Social Justice in an Ageing Society is an engaging blend of wisdom, practical suggestions and stories. It is irrelevant to no one!

To read the Statement in full, and Sr Patty Fawkner’s answer to the question, “What do the elderly of our world teach me for the journey of life?” visit the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.

Where love is fostered

Octogenarian Dawn Morgan (above) offers a glimpse into her world.

I am 89. I’ve lived in my home at Waratah for 69 years, and my late husband, Allan, and I raised our four daughters here. Now I have 11 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren. I live for Church – and next to Church, it’s bingo! I’m at Corpus Christi Church for Mass every Sunday and I take Communion to a resident of Maroba. Once a week I teach scripture in a nearby school. I’m a Dominican Associate – the Sisters live just across the road – and for many years I was a ‘foster nan’ at the Stockton Centre. There, you give love but you get it back threefold. I do what I want to do and my bad knee does it too. It’s good to be alive and my hope is for what I’m already living – a happy and healthy life.

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Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a member of the Raymond Terrace Parish and a freelance writer with a particular interest in church matters.

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