“Tell me about your grandmother,” the director of vocations for an East Coast diocese asks the young man sitting on the other side of his desk for his initial interview at the chancery. He leans back in his chair to enjoy the response, knowing already what it will be.
“Oh, she is the most incredible woman,” the young man instantly lights up. “My grandmother is really special to me, and she is so strong in her Catholic faith. In fact, I think I owe my vocation to the priesthood to her,” he reflects. The vocations director nods knowingly. Every candidate for the priesthood that has come into his office has said the same thing.
I heard this story in a homily by Father Jack Shrum while he was pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, but it is repeated in a variety of ways throughout the generations. So many of us owe our Catholic faith, and much else that is good in our lives, to our incredible grandparents. On July 26 we celebrate the feast day of Sts. Joachim and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus. This is a fitting time to reflect on the gift and mission of grandparents.
Pope Francis proclaims that grandparents have a special vocation. “Old age has a grace and a mission too, a true vocation from the Lord. … It is not yet time to ‘pull in the oars.’ This period of life is different from those before, there is no doubt; we even have to somewhat ‘invent it ourselves,’” he reflected, in a grandparents-themed Wednesday audience (March 11, 2015). Still, he identified two common jobs for Christians in this season of life: prayer, and passing on the wisdom of life.
One of my favorite novels is Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter. Hannah narrates her story as an old woman remembering the events and people in her life, the shape that love took in her life. She chooses to make this remembering a prayer: a prayer of thanks.
Pope Francis affirms this is the prayer that wards off resentment and cynicism and blesses the world. “We are able to thank the Lord for the benefits received, and fill the emptiness of ingratitude that surrounds us,” he said. “We need old people who pray because this is the very purpose of old age. The prayer of the elderly is a beautiful thing. We are able to intercede for the expectations of younger generations and give dignity to the memory and sacrifices of past generations.” Lest some dismiss the invisible, intangible gift of prayer as unimportant, Francis insists to the contrary: “The prayer of grandparents and of the elderly is a great gift for the Church, it is a treasure!”
Grandparents have so much to teach. They can calm the anxieties of the young and remind them to seek higher things. As Francis pointedly noted, they “remind ambitious young people that a life without love is a barren life,” and teach “the overly self-absorbed that there is more joy in giving than in receiving.”
In addition to passing on faith (see my April column), grandparents can give the gifts of time, presence and attention. They often do this while passing on skills. I can hardly sew a napkin, and I rarely sit still unless there’s a computer in front of me, but my mother spends hours with my daughters teaching them to sew beautiful historical-era dresses. She also shows them the religious medals and rosaries she received from her own grandmother and tells us how special Great-Grandma Gansneder was — an incredible woman, strong in her Catholic faith.
Just like Pope Francis’ grandma. The pope has said he keeps two letters from his grandmother Rosa in his breviary and returns to them often. One reads: “May these my grandchildren, to whom I have given the best of my heart, have a long and happy life, but if on some painful day, sickness or the loss of a loved one fills you with grief, remember that a sigh before the tabernacle, where the greatest and most august martyr resides, and a gaze at Mary at the foot of the cross, can make a drop of balm fall on the deepest and most painful wounds.”
Northwest Catholic – July/August 2017