Between the Book of Judges and the 1st Book of Samuel, is snuggled in an almost non-descript manner, four simple chapters of the Book of Ruth. Set in the time of the Judges, the land is hit by a terrible famine, which coerces Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and his sons Mahlon and Chilion to embark on a long and arduous emigration from Bethlehem to the plateau of Moab. The family soon faced hardship when Elimelech passed on a short while after arriving at the plateau of Moab. Naomi was thus widowed and left with her two sons. One married Orpah, a Moabite, and the other wedded Ruth, also of the Moabite tribe. However, this wedding bliss was soon short-lived as we hear that Naomi’s two sons also passed on, leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law. Thus, they decided to return to Bethlehem, and along the way, Naomi cried out to her daughters-in-law to return to their own households.
In a particularly moving speech, Naomi says, “Go back, my daughters. Why come with me? Have I other sons in my womb who could become your husbands? Go, my daughters, for I am too old to marry again. Even if I had any such hope, or if tonight I had a husband and were to bear sons, would you wait for them and deprive yourselves of husbands until those sons grew up? No, my daughters, my lot is too bitter for you, because the LORD has extended his hand against me.” (Ruth 1: 11-13)
Orpah thus took leave of Naomi and went her own way, while Ruth remained loyal to Naomi and continued to accompany her in her old age.
The first chapter of Ruth thus presents a poignant account of old age, loss, grief, bitterness, and grit. Above all, the trope of kindness to a fellow human being, in Hebrew, the word, hesed, is seen clearly in how Ruth makes the difficult choice to stay on as a help and a daughter to Naomi. Artist Irene Wong, the winner of 2018’s Angelico Award, who painted Selah Moment, captures the dynamics between Ruth and Naomi most sensitively. Naomi is seen being carried by Ruth, as Ruth supports herself with a staff. There is sadness in their eyes, while a smile on their faces, paints a hidden and deep hopefulness in the Lord. According to Irene Wong, the picture Selah Moment, was also profoundly inspired by her own journey as a caregiver to her mother suffering from dementia (Catholic News, 2018).
A study carried out in 2020, reflected how there were 63.8 thousand single-person elderly households in Singapore with the numbers projected to rise to 20% of Singapore’s population by the year 2030 (Hirschmann, 2021). While a complementary study in 2020, reflected how the elderly population of Singapore, of those 65 years and above, was reflected at 15.2% of the total resident population and has been forecasted to become one-third of Singapore’s population by the year 2050 (Hirschmann, 2021b). The reality is this: With families becoming smaller and birth rates dropping, coupled with a rapidly increasing aging population, Singapore faces significant challenges, as the elderly try to catch up with the issues that arise from newer technologies, a lack of economic support and entry into the labour market, and a strain in terms of care-giving and medical aid, as hospitals and hospices pivot to embrace a larger gerontological population.
These challenges were seen and felt most acutely when the Catholic Church in Singapore had to shut down its doors as a measure to halt the spread of COVID-19, and as the Church in Singapore transited into the use of livestreaming and application technologies such as the booking of Masses online via the MyCatholic.sg app, electronic modes of payment and donation, and video-conferencing platforms. Many elderly parishioners felt overwhelmed and helpless, and were unable to navigate the systems that were so new-fangled and foreign to them. Parishes saw a mass exodus, through no choice of theirs, of elderly faithful during the time of 2020-2021, as the elderly parishioners simply could not keep up, and choose to stay rather at home. Overarchingly, there was a fear of new technology, a reluctance or inability to change, multiple barriers to entry, and a loneliness and melancholy as these elderly parishioners felt discriminated against with the ensuing regulations for those of a certain age-group to attend only the livestream Masses at home. Thus, these once faithful parishioners, having no or little help to navigate the new, very threatening, and scary landscape, were left to fend for themselves, and soon faded into oblivion, forgotten even by the regular parishioners who would attend the same Eucharistic Celebrations with them prior to the onset of COVID-19.
Beyond the multi-levelled difficulties and issues that the elderly face on a day-to-day basis of coping with the New Normal, the question that permeates our consciousness is whether we the Church have done enough to outreach to these elderly parishioners, and the elderly in our neighbourhood. We read the news of how elderly persons, often with mental health issues had been found dead and alone, a few days after, in their very own homes, and were only discovered when the neighbours found a stench emitting from their neighbour’s home and called the police. A particularly thought-provoking recent story, tells of how an elderly man used to annoy his neighbours by throwing crumpled paper balls into their house via their open door. However, after some time, this stopped and caused the neighbours to feel suspicious, prompting them to call in the law enforcers, who suspected that something was amiss, and having broken into the elderly man’s home found that he had already been decomposing on his couch for several weeks. The neighbour then postulated, that perhaps the old man, had known in some way that he was in his sunset years, and had begun throwing the paper balls into his neighbour’s home on a daily basis, in the hope that if he suddenly stopped doing so, the neighbours might be prompted to check in on him.
The Church and the Faithful Community surely can do more in accompanying the elderly of our parish and our parish boundaries, and not wait before it is too late, to make a connection with the elderly in our vicinity.
Pope Francis in his address to Catholic seniors and pastoral workers who were attending a three-day conference on the pastoral care of the elderly in 2020, pointed out that aging cannot be seen as a sickness, but rather as a privilege as the elderly hold many gifts of wisdom, and experience, and who are “protagonists of evangelization, privileged witnesses of God’s faithful love.” (Wooden, 2020, para. 18 ) Accordingly, parishes and churches in ignoring their elderly parishioners, are the ones who would lose a wondrous treasure (Wooden, 2020). The pope then issued a challenge: “We must change our pastoral routines to respond to the presence of so many older people in our families and communities.” (Wooden, 2020, para. 2).
While Pope, now Saint John Paul II, wrote in the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (1988), “The expected retirement of persons from various professions and the workplace provides older people with a new opportunity in the apostolate. Involved in the task is their determination to overcome the temptation of taking refuge in a nostalgia in a never-to-return past or fleeing from present responsibility because of difficulties encountered in a world of one novelty after another. They must always have a clear knowledge that one’s role in the Church and society does not stop at a certain age at all, but at such times knows only new ways of application […]. Arriving at an older age is to be considered a privilege: not simply because not everyone has the good fortune to reach this stage in life, but also, and above all, because this period provides real possibilities for better evaluating the past, for knowing and living more deeply the Paschal Mystery, for becoming an example in the Church for the whole People of God” (no. 48).
Today, we the faithful community are invited to reach out to our elderly brothers and sisters, as how Ruth reached out to Naomi. There is a godly responsibility to care. The word used in the narrative of Ruth, is the Hebrew go’el, for “redeemer” – we are to be partners of the redeeming work of Christ, which includes the recovery or retention of family land (Leviticus 25:25; 27:9–33; Jeremiah 32:6–25), and the release of a relative from voluntary servitude to pay debts (Leviticus 25:47–55). We are not mere strangers in Church, but are now moda – bearing a kinship obligation and responsibility to our elderly parishioners, community, and neighbours. We are expected to extend our care to these.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Catholic News. (2018, November 8). Expressing their faith through art. Catholic News Singapore. Retrieved August 26, 2021 from https://catholicnews.sg/2018/11/08/expressing-their-faith-through-art/
Hirschmann, R. (2021, July 9). Number of one-person households aged 65 years and above in Singapore in 2011 to 2020. [Data set]. Statistia. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1113131/singapore-elderly-single-households-number/
Hirschmann, R. (2021b, February 11). Elderly population as share of resident population Singapore 1970-2020. [Data set] Statistia. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1112943/singapore-elderly-share-of-resident-population/
Pope John Paul II. (1988, December 30). Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Christifidelis laici. Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Wooden, C. (2020, January 31). Church must recognise the gifts of older Catholics, pope says. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved August 26, 2021 from https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-chronicles/church-must-recognize-gifts-older-catholics-pope-says