Listening with Pope Francis
To delve into the reasons as to why children end up on the streets, women are battered and old people are housebound and alone, is to do a collective, global examination of conscience. It is to ask the question: why is this so? And perhaps most importantly, the question: why do we permit it to be so? After all, most people would be horrified at the thought of their own children becoming street kids, their own mothers being beaten and kicked or their own grandparents being neglected. And that these things are also happening in the developing world where traditions of family solidarity remain strong, is a cause for urgent reflection. The general prayer intentions of Pope Francis for this period do indeed invite sobering reflection on the state of our world.
I can remember a time when one saw no street children in the towns and cities of South Africa. So what happened? Why did it, quite quickly, become an accepted fact of our urban life for there to be thousands of youngsters sleeping in doorways and begging at traffic lights? Was it to do with the violence and disruption of the transition from apartheid? The death throes of apartheid certainly did cripple family life, as had apartheid itself, thanks to the migrant labour system. However, because the painful transition took place at the same time as the HIV/AIDS pandemic, it was a cruelly-timed double blow which wreaked havoc with the ties that bind families and communities.
In South Africa we have a Minister for Women and Children and People with Disabilities. The existence of such a minister is an eloquent statement of our poignant legacy. However, it also says something about the efforts being made to redress the wrongs done to the vulnerable. In 2011, the Minister, Lulu Xingwana, remarked that the phenomenon of street children was global, though most acute in developing countries. UNICEF estimated that the number of street children worldwide as around 100 million, over twice the population of South Africa.
I recently had a conversation with a woman who was bemoaning the fact that she had to look after the child of one of her grandchildren who had become pregnant while still at school. She remarked that it was so much more expensive to bring up a child today than when she was young. She was not only making a statement about inflation. Given the need to take education further today, the cost of raising a child has far outpaced inflation. Western parents whose children remain at home into their late 20s because they cannot afford to move out while studying or even working will understand the observation well.
So elders in the developing world struggle to pay for the bringing up of their children, many of whom may be AIDS orphans, and this puts a huge, unequal and unfair strain on women. When a great-grandmother is obliged to bring up small children we are seeing the traditional extended family being tested to its limits. This particular child’s prospects are not great, but if the great-grandmother had no job, he or she might also end up on the streets.
Hence, when it comes to the wisdom and experience of the elderly, there is a sense in which this crisis in the family calls on these all too much. Grandmothers and even great grandmothers should not have to bring up entire families of small children. They have the wisdom and expertise, but they lack both the money and the physical strength.
The missionary intentions should therefore be seen in the light of these desperate needs. If we challenge young people to consecrate their lives to the Gospel in the religious life, the priesthood or the lay apostolate, let this not mean them fleeing from the harsh contemporary realities. If we seek Christian unity, and greater collaboration, let us do so in common projects to protect the most poor and vulnerable. And let pre-evangelisation include the call to end poverty and lessen inequality in the way Pope Francis’ prophetic words and actions clearly impress ‘people of good will’ and make them more open to the Gospel.