One of my favorite memories growing up was when my grandfather would drop by our home for a surprise visit. I always loved seeing him, and the dollar and soda he would each give to me and my brother each wasn’t bad either. He’d sit and talk with us, occasionally fixing a toy or watching us play.
It was a gift having him in our lives, especially as our other grandparents had either passed away or lived in Portugal. It was a gift that I came to appreciate all the more when he passed while I was in high school; a gift that could never be replaced.
Grandparents serve an indispensable role in the lives of children. Not only do many grandparents serve as partial or full caregivers, but many may also serve as their grandchildren’s guardians. For my children, our parents play various roles in their lives, from playmates to caregivers while my wife and I work. The relationship they have with our children has helped to create a support system that nurtures them physically, mentally, and Spiritually.
It is in part because of the integral role that grandparents play in the lives of their families that Pope Francis named the Sunday closest to the Memorial of Saints Joachim and Anne the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly.
Jesus, in being the second person of the Trinity Incarnate, was subject to all things we humans are, including having grandparents. Tradition holds that Saints Joachim and Anne were Mary’s parents, while Matthew’s Gospel names Joseph’s father as Jacob (Mt 1:16). While we may not know for certain how long their lives overlapped with Jesus’, it is safe to assume that if they did, Jesus would have had a good deal of interaction with them, especially living in a first-century Jewish home. In becoming Incarnate and living as part of a family, God sanctified the family, including grandparents.
This is to say that the role of grandparents is therefore not just a ceremonial role but a vocation; even an extension of the vocation to the married life. Lorene Duquin, author of “The Catholic Grandparents Handbook” (2018), shares a myriad of insights not only regarding the vocation of grandparents, but also on ways that grandparents can increase their impact within their grandchildren’s lives.
Quoting several grandparents, Duquin writes that the role of grandparents involves “loving, being loved, and having the time to really observe the uniqueness of each child. Grandparents have the wisdom of experience that parents are just in the process of gaining” and “part of [a grandparent’s] job is to help shed light on whatever is happening in the lives of your grandchildren” (19-20).
It is perhaps for these reasons that multigenerational households, that often include grandparents, are the most likely to report that they pray together (79 percent) and talk about God and faith (86 percent), surpassing nuclear families and single-parent households in these two categories (Barna, “Households of Faith” 66-67).
For parents, this only serves to underscore the importance of including our own parents in the lives of our children, especially as we try to raise them in the Catholic faith.
And for grandparents, never underestimate the importance you hold in your grandchildren’s lives, regardless of whether you see them daily or live long distance. To this end, Duquin offers several suggestions for how grandparents can love, reach out to, and nurture their grandchildren’s lives. The following are three suggestions she provides regarding faith.
1.Teach grandchildren to pray
There are no rules, Duquin points out, for teaching grandchildren how to pray. Each grandparent will find their own way. What is important is that they are taught how to pray. This can mean sharing one’s own favorite devotion, prayer life, or taking grandchildren to Mass. Not only do these helping actions support parents in laying a foundation for faith, they also are bonding opportunities.
2. Sharing the faith
Father James Mallon shares that starting the conversation with children or grandchildren about “external faith practices,” like going to church when they don’t want to, doesn’t necessarily work as an initial entry point. Rather, he recommends that grandparents share about their own relationship with Jesus, their experience of prayer, and discuss faith as something deep. “Bring Jesus alive in how you live your faith,” Father Mallon explains. “Often young people will come into the Church through RCIA, and even though they weren’t raised in the Church, the memory of their grandparents taking them to Mass or teaching them the Rosary or talking about prayer and the importance of faith in their lives is what inspired them” (Duquin, 75).
3. Family Traditions
Traditions tell us a great deal of who we are as individuals and as a people, and grandparents often have an important role in passing them on. These traditions provide us with stability in developing our identity and provide a sense of belonging. “Children learn important lessons from family traditions — about personal values, social behaviors, and communication skills. Even when families disagree at family gatherings, children learn valuable lessons about respecting others and dealing with conflict” (Duquin, 124).
While a child’s primary catechists in the faith are always their parents, grandparents will also always have a pivotal role to play in helping their grandchildren encounter and build a relationship with Christ. Especially when grandchildren or children don’t practice their faith or go to Mass, grandparents’ faithful and loving witness to the faith becomes all the more essential.
To this end, I invite all grandparents to avail themselves of the resources from the Catholic Grandparents Association (catholicgrandparentsassociation.org), who were a big impetus behind the Holy Father’s establishment of this day. Interested individuals can also contact them to learn how to form a local chapter to offer support and community among grandparents.
As we celebrate the first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, may we pray for our own grandparents and better appreciate the importance of grandparents and the elderly in the lives of families and in the life of the Church.
Anchor columnist David Carvalho is the senior director for Faith Formation, Youth, Young Adult and Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Fall River. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.