Many kids think their grandparents are 100% wonderful — the loving adults in their lives who are all spoil and no scold.
But Catholic grandparents can, and should, be much more. They’re in a unique position to pass along the faith with grace, patience and wisdom.
Ask Corey, Edward and Ashley Brennan of Columbia, Conn., three teens who point to their maternal grandmother, Vincenzina Moran, as a role model of Christian discipleship.
“She goes to daily Mass,” says 18-year-old Corey, who notes that she has also driven him from school to Eucharistic adoration, reminded him to pray the Rosary and taught him how to make a novena. “As many times in the summer as I can, I go with her.”
Edward, who is 19, fondly recalls the family driving to Mass Sunday morning and beeping to his “Nona,” who was returning home from the earlier Mass. “It let us know she loves the Lord,” he says. “She has always led the way. Anytime we need a good prayer or feel down, we can always call Nona.”
“Every time we go over her house, she tells us stories of the saints,” adds 16-year-old Ashley. “Padre Pio is her favorite.”
On one visit Ashley made with her Nona to the senior center for lunch, the teen says of their mealtime conversations, “The people were amazed how into my faith I was, as much as they were.”
Surely one of the most important and meaningful things a grandparent can do is pass along the faith to the grandchildren. And surely one of the best reminders of this is the July 26 feast of Jesus’ grandparents, Sts. Joachim and Anne — the people Mary knew as her mom and dad.
Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan captured the idea succinctly in 2005, when he wrote in his diocesan newspaper: “We’d be in a big mess without our grandparents, because they often have a tremendous impact on the spiritual and moral development of their grandchildren. How often it is that our grandparents teach their grandkids their prayers, Bible stories, the lives of the saints, the rudiments of the faith? And how often do Grandma and Grandpa mirror the unconditional love of God to their grandkids?”
Just look at most depictions of St. Anne in paintings, stained glass and statues. Because she appears holding a book and teaching Mary as a little girl, we can also wonder at the times St. Anne did the same with her grandson.
Of course, grandchildren look for the smiling faces of their grandparents at a game or trip to the park or a stop for ice cream. But there’s more to that picture than meets the eye.
“Grandparents need to think hard about their obligations to be witnesses to the faith of their grandchildren, and to do what they reasonably can to promote their well-being,” says Germain Grisez, professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. “Being properly catechized is certainly more important than physical health or being educated.”Holy Role
Indeed, scholarly studies bear out the powerful role a religiously observant grandparent can play in forming a grandchild’s conscience. In the late 1990s, the Population Research Institute at Penn State University and the University of North Carolina found that church attendance has a stabilizing effect on one’s children and grandchildren.
In Madera, Calif., Theresa Rieping, who is active at St. Joachim Parish, sees these findings firsthand — in the eyes of her 16 grandchildren.
“Babysitting is a joy and a privilege,” she says, “because I have the opportunity to catechize them and teach them praise and worship songs.” These she makes up along with songs on math, for example. To the popular Barney tune, she put her lyrics about God’s love and the Blessed Trinity. She explains, “I don’t mind borrowing from other sources to praise God.”
Example goes a long way, she finds. When one of the older grandchildren was little and used to observing her praying, the tot’s mom caught her in the corner, hands folded in imitation, repeating “Oma” (German for grandmother).
Grandfathers have an equally important role. Dana Brenner knows it from her own father, who has four children, and his consistent presence with his 16 grandchildren ranging from 4 months to 14 years old. All live in the Atlanta, Ga., area.
“Everything he does is a reflection of the faith,” Brenner says. “His presence around the kids is such a reinforcement for them.”
She runs down a long list that includes leading the blessing before every meal and making the sign of the cross on the children’s heads.
Brenner’s 9-year-old Caroline and 13-year-old Elizabeth like putting flowers by the large Blessed Mother statue in their grandfather and grandmother’s backyard, especially on Easter Sunday. Eleven-year-old Alex remembers the time he lost a favorite toy and his grandfather taught him to pray for St. Anthony’s help. He found the toy the next day.
“I attribute a lot to my wife, Diane,” says their grandfather, Tony Jabaley. “We’re a team. I couldn’t do it without her.”
Teaching and passing along the faith often take root as wonderful family traditions and connections. When the Jabaleys were first married, they bought a four-foot concrete statue of the Blessed Mother, which he painted for his mother. When she died, they brought the statue to their yard. Diane began putting flowers around the Blessed Mother.
“The kids are really in awe of the Blessed Virgin statue in the back yard,” he says. “The little ones love to go up and touch her. Some bring flowers and put them in front of her. It makes me feel good they have that concern and consideration.”
Then there are sacramentals for the grandchildren, like holy medals, and the rosaries they got in Rome and had blessed by the Pope.
“They keep it by their bedside or visible in the bedroom,” Jabaley says. It’s a wonderful reminder to pray the Rosary.
“Keep your grandchildren close to the Church,” Jabaley says when asked for grandparenting advice. “If you can go to Mass with them and their parents, that means a lot to the grandchildren.”
This advice was recognized as vital in 2000 by the Pontifical Council for the Family.
At the Jubilee of Families, it pointed out that grandparents “communicate a life and faith experience with special tenderness, and today they are often an important factor in evangelization.”
Even grandparents living out of state and unable to visit often can be effective mentors and spiritual leaders. Sources advise praying daily for the grandchildren and telling them about it often, whether by phone, letter or e-mail.
Provide simple literature the child can understand, suggests Assumptionist Father Roland Guilmain of St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish and Shrine in Fiskdale, Mass. “Mail religious cards on their feast day and birthday, with words of affection, so the feast day is important to the child,” he adds. “Make them realize it’s a spiritual feast too.”
Good spiritual practices become enduring, like another Jabaley example proves.
“Anytime we’d take a car trip that would be a half hour or more, my parents would get out the rosary and we’d all say it together,” he recalls. “When I started having young children, we’d do the same. And now my children do it with their children.”
Like many dedicated Catholic grandparents, he’s spoiling his grandkids, all right — with a treasure of spiritual riches.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.