Address by Most Rev Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, given at the diocesan launch of the Australian Catholic Bishops 2016-17 Social Justice Statement, Sacred Heart Parish, Blackheath, on Sunday 25 September.
Welcome to the diocesan launch of this year’s Social Justice Statement by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which is entitled A Place at the Table: Social justice in an ageing society.
In today’s Gospel parable, we heard how poor old Lazarus was left outside the gates while the rich man enjoyed a banquet in his house. The parable speaks to us about the individualism, the indifference and the threat to human relationships we encounter in the world and in our society today.
The 2015-16 statement entitled For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas highlights the plight of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It challenges us to walk in their shoes, to see them as brothers and sisters in need, to welcome the unwelcomed, to replace the culture of fear and indifference with that of encounter and acceptance.
This year, the focus is on the aged and the elderly in our midst. It is a relevant issue, indeed, as Australia faces the challenge of an ageing society. Australia needs to adjust not just financially and politically but morally and spiritually as it deals with this challenge.
Too often older people are stereotyped as unproductive, burdensome and dependent. These stereotypes arise from the assumption that we are valued only by our economic or material contributions.
It does not help when family and intergenerational relationships are often undermined by an overemphasis on personal autonomy and individualism. Here, perhaps, we need to learn from some of our Asian counterparts who have a strong tradition of respect, care and filial duty to their elders.
The Gospel calls us to value people even more on the basis of their being the image and the icon of the suffering Christ. Parables like the sheep and goats, the rich man and Lazarus, etc … tell us that Christ is disguised in the forgotten, the forsaken and the vulnerable among us. Thus, whatever we do unto them, we do unto him. It is a sobering lesson indeed.
St Paul in prison reflects on his imminent demise like this: “Death is at work in us but life is in you.” In many ways, this can also be said about our aged brothers and sisters. They are nurturing and delivering new forms of life even in their old age and decline.
I see this most powerfully in the witness and ministry of many elderly nuns. But I see this also in many other elderly people. Their wisdom and lived experience are priceless treasures that can enrich our lives.
I hope the statement will help us as individuals and communities to respond effectively to the challenge of the ageing society.
I conclude with the words of Pope Francis with whom I was privileged to have had my ‘Da Vinci’ moment at a dinner table in Rome recently.
“We must reawaken the collective sense of gratitude, appreciation and hospitality, which makes the elderly feel like a living part of the community.
“Our elderly are men and women, fathers and mothers, who came before us on our own road, in our own house, in our daily battle for a worthy life.
“Indeed, how I would like a church that challenges the throwaway culture by the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old.”