Source: Irish Catholic Media Office
“It is important that we don’t forget the lessons of the recent pandemic, when older people, especially those in nursing homes, were exposed to greater risk, because they were not adequately factored into public policy” – Bishop Doran
Almost forty years ago, when I was in my early thirties, I was a member of the chaplaincy team at UCD. I spend a lot of time with young people and I didn’t think much about growing old. Now that I am heading rapidly towards 70 years of age, I am all the more convinced of the importance of a new and deeper relationship between the generations. We have much to learn from one another, as Pope Francis often reminds us. During this past year, the Pope, who is in his eighties and who continues to make an enormous contribution to the Church and to the world, gave a series of very rich reflections on the meaning and value of old age. On this ‘Day for Life’, when we focus on “caring for the older person”, I want to begin by reflecting on the theme of “service” about which Jesus speaks in the Gospel. The two things are not unconnected.
Let us go back for a moment to UCD in the 1980’s. All human life was there. I was out around the campus one afternoon, when I met a student I knew from the Science Faculty. She said, “I called to your house earlier but the servant said you were out.” I had an immediate negative response to the word “servant”. We did have a “housekeeper”, but we would never have thought of her as a “servant”.
In a modern democratic society, where the focus is on everybody being equal, the idea of having “servants” seems out of place. In the final analysis, of course, most people are employed by other people to provide some kind of service for which they are paid. Others generously give hours of their time in voluntary service, in sports clubs, community associations, meals on wheels and ministries in the Church. We all expect to be served in different ways. So there should really be no problem with the idea of “service”. I don’t think it really matters what word you use to describe the service people give. What counts is how we treat people; whether we pay them properly, speak respectfully to them, involve them in decision-making, or perhaps treat them as if they were in some way inferior.
Jesus told his disciples, “the greatest among you is the one who serves”. When we use our gifts and skills to serve others, or when we serve God himself, it is an expression of gratitude. It is a way of showing appreciation for the gifts we have received.
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus describes our relationship with God as that of good and faithful servants. With our modern focus on equality, we may even have come to think of God as our equal, and that presents a real difficulty. The fact that He loves us and walks with us on the path of life, does not change the fact that God is God, the source of life, and beauty and truth. We are not his equals. It is a privilege to be invited into his service.
Now, perhaps, we can go on to reflect on how we care for older people, both by respecting their capacity to serve and by serving them when they have particular needs. Most of us who are older, and I include myself in that, don’t define ourselves as old. These things are relative. While some of us may need a bit more medical attention than we did in the past, we don’t think of ourselves as being particularly vulnerable or in need of care.
Many older people continue to offer service of one kind or another, in the family, in the Church and in the wider community and are glad to do so. Their gifts should be acknowledged and appreciated. Caring for older people begins by making sure that they are not pushed to one side, or excluded from participation; making sure they have the opportunity to serve in whatever way is appropriate to their health and their energy.
In a world where everybody is so busy, grandparents are there for their grandchildren, listening, loving and sharing the wisdom of their years. In a world torn apart by war and mistrust, with energy prices going through the roof, older people have seen it all before. In the midst of all the anxiety and turmoil, they continue to have hope, because they know that the Spirit of God is even now at work, and that peace and healing will come.
Some older people do, of course, need more care, whether they live at home or in a nursing home. Even when people are frail due to old age, we should be slow to suggest that they have nothing to contribute. Even then, they have a mission. So many of our older people bear witness to the Gospel by their presence, their prayer and their patience in the face of suffering or reduced mobility.
If we return to the image Jesus offers us in the Gospel, we remember that the servant, having served the master, is entitled to sit down and have his or her meal. In much the same way, after a life-time in which they have generously given of themselves, as parents and grandparents, as employees and as volunteers, those who have become frail due to old age deserve the very best that society can give them. It is our turn to serve them.
As Pope Francis says, this can sometimes be experienced as a burden, but in reality it is a great privilege. The very fact of spending time caring for older people, who are coming towards the end of their lives, invites us to slow down, to listen, to reflect differently on the meaning of our own existence. It is important that we don’t forget the lessons of the recent pandemic, when older people, especially those in nursing homes, were exposed to greater risk, because they were not adequately factored into public policy.
I take the opportunity to send my best wishes and blessings to all those older members of our parish communities around the Diocese who are unable to join us for Mass in person. Please let us know if we can offer you any practical or spiritual assistance at home. In the meantime, please stay close to us in prayer and be assured that there is nothing more important that you could be doing at this moment in the history of the world.
Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin and chairman of the Council for Life of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. This homily was delivered yesterday for Day for Life Sunday, 2 October, at 10.30am Mass in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo.
This year’s theme for ‘Day for Life’ Sunday is Caring for the Older Person. You can find the full content of the 2022 pastoral message here: Day for Life 2022 – Caring for the Older Person | Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference
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