Many countries have special days to honor grandparents.
Some choose fixed days: Poland celebrates on January 21 (grandmothers) and 22 (grandfathers); The Netherlands, June 4; Brazil, Portugal and Spain on July 26; Mexico on August 28; Italy on October 2; and Russia on October 28.
Others choose specific Sundays: The United States, together with Bangladesh, Estonia and the Philippines, on the second Sunday of September; France, the first Sunday of March; Taiwan, the last Sunday of August; Japan, the third Sunday of September; The United Kingdom, the first Sunday of October; Hong Kong, Germany and Pakistan, the second Sunday of October; Australia, the last Sunday of October; South Sudan, the Second Sunday of November; and Singapore, the Fourth Sunday of November.
But the vast majority of the world’s 197 countries don’t have a day to honor our parents’ parents. The United Nations, which has 190 different international days, does not have one for grandparents.
That’s why it’s highly significant, not just within the Catholic Church, but within the global community, that Pope Francis has established the World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly to be celebrated every year on the fourth Sunday of July. With Catholics present in almost every country, the commemoration should be a leaven making fitting appreciation for grandparents rise across the globe. The first observance will take place July 25 this year.
In his message in preparation for the day, Pope Francis said he was moved to establish it not just because of the importance of grandparents and the elderly, a theme on which he has often spoken, but particularly because of the neglect and isolation so many grandparents and seniors experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel restrictions, nursing home policies and fear for their safety prevented their being visited and embraced by their loved ones.
He hopes that on this day, grandchildren will visit their grandparents, perhaps even sharing with them a copy of his letter, and that parish families will have special Masses thanking God for the gift of grandparents, praying for them, and entrusting to Him those who have died, particularly during the pandemic.
To incentivize the day, he has permitted the granting of a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, for all those who participate in Liturgical celebrations observing it, those who unite themselves Spiritually to those celebrations if they are unable to leave their homes, and those who visit, in person or virtually, their grandparents or elderly brothers and sisters in need.
The choice of the fourth Sunday of July is transparently to connect it, as closely as possible, to the July 26 feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary and grandparents of Jesus. This link to Jesus’ family tree and to Salvation history suggests that everyone’s genealogy and personal prehistory is part of the providential plan of God.
Pope Francis, in his message, was summoning grandparents to recognize and be renewed in their Sacred calling to be guardians of the connection between their family’s history and Salvation history and to pass on to younger generations a clear awareness of their place in the bigger picture.
Speaking as an elder himself, he asked grandparents and seniors, “What is our vocation today, at our age?” It is “to preserve our roots, to pass on the faith to the young, and to care for the little ones.” He called grandparents and seniors to be a living memory. “Keeping memory alive and sharing it with others,” he stated, “is a true mission for every elderly person.” Memory, he added, is “the foundation of life” and grandparents have a key role in establishing their grandkids securely not only in firm familial roots and stories but also in the history of the faith. The young normally look toward the present and the future and are prone to neglect the past; grandparents are prophets who bring the wisdom and experience of the past to guide the now and not yet.
The vocation of grandparents, he added, is linked to their vocation as apostles. Just like the Lord “never, ever goes into retirement,” he stated, “there is no retirement age from the work of proclaiming the Gospel and handing down traditions to your grandchildren.” He was surprised, he said, that at 76, he was elected the Successor of St. Peter, and in the last eight years, he hasn’t slowed down in trying to live and teach the faith. Citing the Biblical figures of Abraham, Moses, Tobit, Eleazar, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna and Nicodemus, all of whose major contributions to Salvation history took place when they were advanced in years, he urged them to see themselves as still very important laborers in the Lord’s vineyard (Mt 20:1-16). Even if physically they may not be as vigorous, he reminded them that their prayer is a “very precious resource,” something that can protect and help the world, perhaps even more “than the frenetic activity of many others.”
While calling upon grandparents and seniors to recognize how important their mission is in the Church and society and to keep loving, like Christ, until the end, the pope was also encouraging grandchildren, children and the young to receive with gratitude the generous giving of their elders. “The future of the world,” he said, “depends on this covenant between young and old.” Normally elders long for that Sacred bond, while the young can be focused so much on looking ahead that they can take for granted, often until it’s too late, the treasure being offered. The official flower for Grandparents’ Day in the USA is, appropriately, the forget-me-not. The Holy Father is hoping by this new World Day to have grandparents and grandchildren renew that covenant and mutually strengthen each other through that bond.
In my years as a priest, I have witnessed — as almost every priest does — the crucial importance of grandparents in the transmission of the faith and the culture that flows from it. I have also repeatedly seen first hand the suffering of grandparents when their children and grandchildren do not receive that gift and practice the faith. In my conversations with wayward teens and young adults, often one of the most effective apologetics is not getting them to appreciate the love of God and seek to love Him back, but getting them to appreciate the love of their grandmother or grandfather and to recognize that the greatest way to love them back and make them happy would be to make the mature choice to return with them to Mass. Appreciating their grandparents’ faith as constitutive of what has made them who they are is frequently a means by which more maturely to make it their own.
Growing up, in the midst of a happy childhood, I lacked the presence of grandparents, three of whom died when I was an infant and the fourth of whom lived in Florida and I only saw him a handful of times before he died when I was a teen. I was lucky to have many great-aunts and –uncles who were, to some degree, surrogate grandparents. But I have rejoiced to see my own parents make the transition from mom and dad to mémère and pépere for my nieces and nephews and several other kids who have spontaneously related to them by those beautiful and significant titles.
Surveys have shown that 72 percent of seniors think that being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfying thing in their life, 90 percent enjoy talking about their grandchildren to everyone, and 63 percent confess they do a better job caring for their grandchildren than they cared for their own. Like so many other grandparents, with more time on their hands than they ever did as parents, my parents love spending time with their grandchildren, teaching them, praying with them, playing with them, giving them encouragement and unconditional love, listening to their stories, attending their games, concerts and academic milestones. They are the ultimate good cops, leading by positive example. And they love watching their kids grow as parents simultaneous with the maturation of the grandchildren.
The world is so much better because of the way they and so many other grandparents live out their vocation.
Together with Pope Francis and the whole Church, we celebrate them, thank them, commit to spend time with them, recommit to the covenant of love with them, and pray for them.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.