e-mail us

Lent 2003 -- Reflection

Life, Dignity and Hope

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Scripture Readings

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:7-9
John 12:20-33


For many decades, the Brazilian Conference of Catholic Bishops has offered a theme to be studied and acted upon during Lent. All Christians are invited to participate. It is called the Fraternity Campaign. Some themes have been about the family or land reform. Others have been ecological. But most often the themes have been about the groups of people who are more or less marginalized in Brazilian society.

We have centered on the poor, on the Afro-Brazilians, on the Indians and on the role of women in the church and in society. This year, during Lent 2003, we have been reflecting on the role of the aged in our society.

Brazil has always been a very young country. The large rural population had need of sons and daughters to till the land. With the passage of time, our country has become urbanized and the great majority of families live in large urban centers or moderately large cities where there is more possibility of finding jobs.

This has changed our population. For the first time in our history, we have more middle aged and aged people than we have children. Also, in the rural areas, before television, the aged were venerated because, in the evenings, they would gather the youngsters and transmit the history of the region and of the family. Today the young people prefer to see action movies on TV, especially if there is lots of violence. If the aged complain, they are even more marginalized.

In preparing for this year’s Lenten campaign, I read a book of quotes by older people. Some describe with humor the situation of many senior citizens. For example: “The four stages of man are infancy, childhood, adolescence and obsolescence” Or: “Old age is when you know all the answers but nobody asks you the questions!”

Also, in large families there is always room for one more. In our small nuclear families, every space “belongs” to someone. Many elderly people are abandoned or put in the care of untrained people who have no patience with the limitations of age.

In a world that worships speed, instant communication and production, who can support the slow, unsteady steps of the aged, their hearing problems and their unproductive (according to our culture) lives?

The book I mentioned above quotes the actress Bette Davis as saying: “Old age is not for sissies!” The aged have difficulty with family members and also in commercial establishments, such as banks and post offices. Our postmodern world is organized by and directed at the young and the swift.

More than 30 years ago, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that the situation of the aged was a scandal in France. French society closed its eyes to all the abuses and dramas it didn’t want to see: abandoned children, young delinquents, the physically or mentally deficient and the aged. The last case, she states, is the most difficult to understand. If we don’t die young, all of us are destined to become old. Why don’t we understand that the treatment of the aged today determines our own future?

De Beauvoir calls attention to the fact that the elderly, with some exceptions, usually don’t “do” what society considers useful. They have to be defined by their existence, their “being” and not by their praxis.

For most young people, adolescents or adults, old age inspires a biological repugnance. It is a psychological form of self-defense. If we are young and strong, we do not accept a future when we will be old and weak. Our rejection of our own future fate reflects on our way of treating the aged we come into contact with.

Most adults treat their aged parents with a form of camouflaged tyranny. Usually, they don’t give direct orders; instead, they use shady maneuvers. They surround their aged relative with an accumulation of attentions that paralyze any personal development on the part of the old. They treat them with ironic benevolence, exchanging amused glances with other younger adults. They lie to the elderly because they see them as useless beings who no longer contribute to the progress of our capitalistic world.

We have read articles in our newspapers explaining that in the United States, 44 percent of the middle aged are being tugged in two directions: They need to care for their children under 21 as well as their aged parents. Low-income minority groups suffer the most in this situation.

At the same time, a federal study in 2002 showed that 90 percent of the nursing homes in the United States are inadequately staffed. The vast majority of the 17,000 nursing homes have too few workers, and this puts the elderly residents at risk for bedsores, infections, dehydration, malnutrition and pneumonia. If this is true of the richest nation in the world, what can we say about nursing care for the aged in the Third World?

Also, experts say that millions of older Americans face greater risks of misdiagnosis, misuse of prescription drugs and other medical problems because only about 9,000 doctors -- less than 2 percent of the 650,000 physicians in the United States -- specialize in geriatric medicine. Under my health insurance plan, here in São Paulo, there is not one doctor specialized in geriatrics. There are 10 million senior citizens in Brazil who not only do not have enough to eat; they do not have the means to buy the medicines that would make their old age bearable.

St. John presents Nicodemus as elderly when he went to seek out Jesus at night. Since in the first-century life expectancy was from 40 to 50 years old, “elderly” would be our middle age. But Nicodemus’s question is important for us all: “How can a man be born again when he is old?”

Jesus answered him that we can be born again through the Spirit of God. No matter how old we are, the Spirit leads us to a new life of goodness, love, affection and compassion. Children, young people and senior citizens alike are all part of God’s family. When we are born again in the Spirit, we respect the life, the dignity and the very existence of those around us. The Bible insists that only those who love, respect and care for their parents will know happiness in this world.

The very heart of Jesus’ ministry on earth was the practice of inclusion. Many of the religious of his day thought that sanctity depended on excluding all those who thought or acted differently from them.

For Jesus, the only way to ensure the conversion of all was to include the weak, the sinners, and the outcasts of his time around the same community table. The Pharisees were the most progressive theologians of their day. They criticized the conservative Sadducees and the imperialism of Rome. But their search for sanctity was based on the exclusion of all those who thought or acted differently.

On this date in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi began his peaceful revolt against British imperialism. Just last week we remembered Anti-Child Prostitution Day. The United Nations thinks there are 7 million child prostitutes in the world. Next week we have Holocaust Remembrance Day, the tragedy that caused the death of at least 6 million Jews.

What does all this mean? It means that the 20th and 21st centuries have not only excluded the aged as useless. Imperialism has impoverished and excluded a large part of the world’s population. Much of the despair in the world today has imperialism as its cause.

Our children are as marginalized as our aged. If not, there could not possibly exist 7 million child prostitutes. Every year in Brazil, well-dressed tourists from Europe and North America are arrested for having sexual relations with children in the most beautiful resort towns on our coast.

Six million Jews were killed in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. Along with them, millions of homosexuals, gypsies and religious and political opponents of fascism were also killed.

Today’s liturgical readings give us hope for the future. God will make a new covenant with us if we radically change our way of thinking and of acting. His compassion is so great that he will change our hearts of stone into living organs that can love without frontiers of age, of race, of religion or of gender.

But the grain of wheat of our cultural conditioning has to die. Our generation will leave much fruit for those who come after us if we remember that we cannot continue to treat those who are “different” from us as if they were less human than we are.

I would like to end this article with two quotes. The first is from good Pope John XXIII: “Human beings are like wine. Some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age!”

My last quote is from the Fraternity Campaign of this year:

The Beatitudes of the Aged

Blessed be those who understand my slow steps and my shaking hands.
Blessed are those who notice that my ears have to strain to hear what they are saying.
Blessed be those who perceive that my eyes are clouded and my reactions are slow.
Blessed are those who look the other way when I dribble at the table.
Blessed be those who please me with a smile, giving me time to talk about things of no importance.
Blessed are those who never say: “You’ve told me that a thousand times!”
Blessed be those who know how to talk about what happened in the past.
Blessed are those who make me feel that I’m loved and not abandoned.
Blessed be those who understand how hard it is for me to carry my cross.
Blessed are those who help me make that last journey to the Promised Land, treating me with love and tender care.

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns is the retired archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil.

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003