“Grandparents are a treasure,” Pope Francis said in a homily during Mass last Nov. 19.
In the same homily, the Holy Father noted, “The elderly pass on history, doctrine, faith, and they leave them to us as an inheritance.” He observed they “often played a heroic role in handing on the faith in times of persecution,” and when parents were absent or confused by secular ideologies, “grandmothers were the ones who handed on the faith.” Many grandparents today have taken a much more direct role in the lives of their grandchildren due to the breakdown of the family and single parenthood, which, sadly, are ever increasing in modern society.
The Pope will celebrate the treasure of grandparents at a Mass for them in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 28, as part of a day dedicated to grandparents and elderly people organized by the Pontifical Council for the Family. (Grandparents’ Day is celebrated in the United States each September after Labor Day.)
The Catholic Grandparents Association recognized the contributions of grandparents when it began in England in 2002. Its founding sprung from a pilgrimage at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham held to honor and thank Sts. Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents and Jesus’ grandparents, and to honor all grandparents, said founder Catherine Wiley — who with husband Stewart raised her family a mile from this shrine known as “England’s Nazareth.”
The pilgrimage received a papal blessing, also in 2002, from Pope St. John Paul II; consequently, it became an annual event and spread, in 2007, to Ireland, when the Wileys bought another home by Our Lady of Knock Shrine.
The first Knock pilgrimage attracted 5,000 grandparents, and the next year, attendance doubled to 10,000.
“More and more, I realized the incredible need to pass along the faith,” said Wiley, who has 10 grandchildren. She wrote to Pope Benedict XVI, asking if he would write a prayer for grandparents and then she brought scores of children’s prayers for their grandparents to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council of the Family to give to the Holy Father. She was thrilled when Benedict fulfilled the request (see photo).
“It was Pope Benedict’s universal prayer for grandparents that really decided we were to become the Catholic Grandparents Association,” Wiley said. “Up to that point, we were just the pilgrimage. The prayer was the way forward.”
With the association swiftly stretching across Europe and spreading worldwide, at her request, the Pontifical Council for the Family translated the prayer into many different languages, because “it’s the universal prayer for grandparents everywhere,” Wiley said. “The prayer has been a huge instrument of evangelization.”
Now, the association is a Church-approved private association of the faithful; and, worldwide, many cardinals, archbishops and bishops have demonstrated support for the association.
Michael La Corte, the U.S. director of the grandparents’ association, acknowledged grandparents as “the pre-eminent collaborators of parents” in the education of their grandchildren. “Consequently,” he said, “the grandparents’ vocation to pass on the faith is instilled by God.”
In Walsingham, Marist Father Phil Greystone coined the phrase “the vocation of grandparents” for Wiley. “The sacred vocation of grandparents is to pass on their faith to their grandchildren,” she explained.
In Australia, Cardinal George Pell launched the Australian Chapter of the Catholic Grandparents Association on Dec. 1, 2013, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. “For many Catholic children today, their grandparents may be the only practicing Catholic members of their families,” he said in his homily that day.
In that vein, at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Francis informed youth, “How important grandparents are for family life and for passing on the human and religious heritage which is so essential for each and every society.”
Even before becoming pope, Francis spoke of his own grandmother, Rosa. In one radio interview, he explained that she taught him to pray and “left a deep spiritual imprint in me and used to tell me stories about the saints.”
Wiley describes grandparents as “the natural evangelizers in the family.” The Wiley home centers around Sunday Mass, grace before meals and short night prayers — including the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be and Angel of God — with the grandchildren.
Wiley suggests giving a holy picture or something else that’s sacred to grandchildren to help them to grow in prayer.
She has explained the Rosary to them in a way that they can understand. “It’s like Our Lady’s photograph album,” she said. “She has all these pictures of Jesus’ life. We are going to pick out one of the pictures [mysteries].”
“I was deeply moved because my grandchildren were saying the Rosary, and they wanted to go on and say more,” she said of the result.
Sandy Shields sees similar results bringing her grandson to the Children’s Rosary, a prayer-group movement for children, led by children, that was begun in Connecticut and is now spreading nationally and internationally.
“My grandson Kyle came to the Children’s Rosary not knowing how to pray the Rosary and being shy about participating,” she said. That was two years ago, when he was 6. Now, he joins the other children right away. He also likes to play the Children’s Rosary theme song in the car. Regular overnights at Grandma Shields’ house mean spending time reading books about Jesus and the Blessed Mother, too.
“Grandparents are uniquely suited to help begin Children’s Rosary prayer groups or bring their grandchildren to already existing groups,” explained Blythe Kaufman, Children’s Rosary founder. “These early experiences of prayer create wonderful memories for these little ones that will last a lifetime.”
Grandparents can help teach other children, too. Shari Paris’ grandchildren do not live near her in Pontiac, Ill., yet she still helped start the first Children’s Rosary group in Illinois, which soon saw two more groups form. She has also asked grandparents in her parish to bring their grandchildren to join in these prayers.
Alicia Belanger, leader of the grandparents’ association in the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., explained that when she and her husband, Gary, take their two grandsons, 8 and 11 years old, out to dinner, Gary always leads them in praying grace.
“That’s very reinforcing for the kids, because we are thanking God,” Alicia said. “We read stories from the Bible when our grandsons are here. They say, ‘Grandmother, read us a story, and read us another one.’ They love them all.”
Getting into the car, the Belangers always make the Sign of the Cross and ask the angels to protect them. After picking the children up from school, they bring the boys to Eucharistic adoration to say a prayer for their mom and dad. They also take the children on a pilgrimage to a Blessed Mother shrine in town and then treat the grandchildren to ice cream.
La Corte pointed out that there are many ordinary opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren to talk about faith: A trip to the zoo is a “wonderful opportunity to talk about Noah and his obedience to God.”
Regardless of how, the importance is to share. Cardinal Pell told grandparents last December to share with grandchildren their love for Jesus and Mary and particular saints. “Encourage them to pray to their guardian angels and their patron saints, to know that Jesus is their greatest friend and Savior,” he said. “Pray that they may come to know the beauty and joy of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Mary and the saints.”
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.