We need to accord age its dignity: Homily by Fr Peter Smith

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Failure to recognise the contribution made by the elderly is one of the deepest kinds of poverty

There is a beautiful image in Genesis of God “walking in the garden in the cool of the evening”. It is evocative of the God who loves creation and appears to relax and enjoy this quiet time at the end of the day. I have often likened our life span in terms of a single day.

As the sun rises we are born and wake to the world; we stretch and nourish ourselves in preparation for the day to come.

As the bright sunshine fills the world with light and growth our adult years, we work and play and love and laugh our way through the busy active daylight hours. As the evening comes, the time when God is out walking, we slowdown from the feverish activities of our lives and rest somewhat in the knowledge of our work done.

These are the golden years of retirement, of ageing and recognising the God who walks beside us in the cool of the evening of our lives.

This year the Catholic bishops of Australia have chosen for their annual social justice statement A Place at the Table: Social Justice in an Ageing Society. Why? In short, because ageing has created many challenges to modern society. The number of Australians aged 65 and over will more than double from 3.6 million today to 8.9 million by the middle of the century.

Once the retirement years were seen as periods of diminished activity and declining health. Now however, thanks to the benefits of modern medicine, we are not only living longer, but living healthy longer. This has brought a number of challenges.

The centre piece of the document and its title come from a challenging and beautiful story related by Pope Francis in November 2013 when a young boy shows his father the value of the ageing grandfather who shares their table.

It calls us to see the dignity and value of the older members of our society. This document is not just directed at or for “older” people but has something for us all.

So many children now are cared for by grandparents, many in our community are caring for older parents, and some of our older members feel that the only value in life is the economic productivity provided by paid work.

There are of course more serious concerns such as elder abuse, claims of intergenerational theft and the allocation of fair resources around healthcare to name but a few.

Today’s Gospel calls us to be open to the cry of the poor at our gates. In our modern society some of the poorest are the ageing in our communities. Many are suffering financial stress, housing insecurity, expensive health regimes and the prospect of long term care.

But I think there is a greater poverty; the poverty of spirit that often accompanies older Australians and the injustice of ageism.

One quarter of people aged over 50 have experienced some form of discrimination, including being denied employment, promotion or training, and being subject to derogatory treatment. Have you noticed how older people experience that they are “invisible”. I have felt this myself often. Waiting at a shop counter you can be ignored.

Many elderly still wish to work and yet and yet are the last to be considered for work. This, Australia’s age discrimination Commission believes, costs around $10 billion each year in lost productivity.

But let’s not reduce any person to simply the economic value they provide; rather, so much of what we value in our older society is the wisdom, stories and keepers of the flame of tradition.

Have you often heard someone say: “I wish I had written down Mum/Dad’s story before they died.” So I say to you, go write it down, listen to the musings and wisdom of an older generation, learn where you came from. It will give you perspective as to where you are going. Hear the history, not just of your family but of a country.

Jesus tells us the story today of the rich man and the poor man, Lazarus, at his gate. The rich man regrets albeit when it is too late, his failure to see God in the poor at his door. Let us not make the same mistake.

Not because it is the charitable thing to do, not because we are afraid of the torment predicted for the rich man, not because we will receive some financial reward but because we will not only be doing the just thing to care for all people and creation in imitation of Jesus, but, we may just be surprised to discover that there is a beauty in ageing and in the aged, and we may even see where our own path is headed.

This homily was given by Fr Peter Smith at St Mary’s Cathedral for Social Justice Sunday on 25 September.