27 September 2009
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin says society owes the elderly
The scriptures have always looked on a long life as a special blessing from God. I believe that we can say – at least in the Western world – that longevity is a special gift of God to our generation. I do not like to hear people talking about the “problem” of an aging population. If you start talking in those terms then very easily, unawares to ourselves, we can begin to look at elderly people as problems, rather than as people who have given enormous gifts to society over a number of generations, who have still today so much to offer today and who as their strengths fail should be gladly helped to live the fullest life possible for the longest period possible.
As ageing becomes a characteristic of our society we have an obligation to ensure that those who have created the good things that we enjoy today are enabled to enjoy their latter years happily and fulfilled. We all owe it to them.
It is great to be here on what – if it were not Sunday – would be celebrated at the Feast of Saint Vincent de Paul. This celebration recognises a remarkable blend of goodness and good citizenship. It was a local resident, Josephine Denning, who wished that her house and the land around it would be used to provide housing for the elderly. This has now become a reality through the cooperation of Canon Randles, of the Dublin Diocese, of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and Fingal County Council and of other public authorities.
It would be too simplistic to describe Saint Benedict’s as just housing for the elderly. Saint Benedict’s is more than just a roof: it has been very brilliantly created to generate the sense of being a real home and a real community. The building stands not in the model of institutional isolation that was characteristic of establishments of the past, but right in the heart of the community. I congratulate the architect and the builders and the crafts people for the realisation of such an imaginative project. I congratulate the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul for this inspiring, timely and truly creative initiative.
Thank God that here in Ireland we have generated over the years remarkably good public services for the elderly in their own homes, which have brought to so many older people the joy of being able to stay in their home and in their familiar surrounding for many years. So many health and support services have been provided to make this possible. It is a credit to our nation.
Should economic cut backs begin in one way or another to weaken the quality of this home-based service or even demolish it, then our society would have to face a real challenge in our care for the elderly. There are too few alternatives available. Caring for the elderly must involve a package of various alternatives to respond to various needs. Institutionalisation should only enter the scene when it is the best option, and never the first option. Ireland has had a sad story of institutions, and our elderly deserve to receive the benefits of the wealth which they themselves fought for and contributed to.
The Gospel reading we have heard speaks of compassion. Compassion is an important word in the scriptures. You will remember that it appears in story of the Good Samaritan, who had compassion on the poor man wounded on the roadside. It is not just that he had compassion, but what changed the Good Samaritan and made him different from the Priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side of the road was compassion. Without compassion any person and any society will fall into the same trap of thinking first of self and not wanting to take on the discomfort or the burden of seeing that others are cared for. We can easily create a world around us where we are all too busy to be compassionate.
The Good Samaritan had compassion for someone who he had never known; nor do we know anything about that injured man – no name, nationality, identity or personal history. It was enough that he was a man, a human person in need. And that compassion was not just emotion: the Samaritan saw him, recognised his need, carried him, bound his wounds, and went on to pay for his care in the inn and even called on his return to see that he had been returned to ordinary life.
Compassion in the New Testament has another and a special meaning. Where we hear the word compassion it means Jesus himself, who is the revelation of the loving kindness of God and who cares for each of us: who sees us, recognises our needs, carries us, and binds up our wounds and who accompanies us at every stage of the journey of our lives. We pray that these walls will be an oasis of compassion for those who dwell here, for those who work here and for the community which surrounds and embraces Saint Benedict’s for many years to come.