Pope Francis designated the fourth Sunday of July the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. He chose that Sunday because it is close to the liturgical memorial of Sts. Joachim and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus.
Faith and Family
I know I grew up a bit ignorant of St. Anne and St. Joachim. However, when the Cathedral of Our Lady put up statues of both saints, I was drawn to find out as much as I could about them. I quickly learned what an important role Sts. Joachim and Anne play in salvation history! If not for their deep faith, typical parents of that period would have at minimum banished their daughter from the family for what was believed to be an illicit pregnancy. Worse yet, parents in this situation often had to stand by while others stoned their daughter to death.
Sts. Joachim and St. Anne, along with St. Joseph, protected Mary from public shaming, which ultimately allowed the birth of our Savior. In other words, Jesus’ grandparents’ steadfast belief in the incarnation, their support for the family of Jesus, and their abiding love obtained our hope for salvation.
Pope Francis’s decision to honor grandparents and the elderly is brilliant and timely. In a period of divided families and a generation of parents with the largest population of nones (unaffiliated with any organized religion) in centuries, grandparents and elderly may hold the key to unifying the next generation to Christ and his church. Grandparents have unconditional love for their children and their grandchildern, and there seems to be an innate desire by grandparents to do all that is humanly possible to keep these loved ones close to Christ. Grandparents may be instrumental in helping their grandchildren know Christ when parents have abdicated the responsibility.
My husband and I were short-sighted when we settled our family in Duluth. At 23 and newly married, we did not consider the consequence of what living over 450 miles from both sets of grandparents would mean for our eventual family. Furthermore, since we came from large families, our parents’ time was proportioned between our siblings, logically making relationship building easier for those grandkids that live closer to our parents. With our first few kids, I think we did a pretty good job of going back home, but as things got busy and the children were older, that time back home was cut considerably shorter. In some ways, we cheated our children out of one of the most significant relationships a kid could have.
Grandparents are crucial to a child’s development, not just in a free nurturing way but also in a spiritual formation way. As our children got older, we were blessed by many elderly adults in our faith community who took on the role of grandparents for our children. These individuals kept tabs on our kids and attended events like games, sacramental moments, Christmas concerts, and special times in the church’s life, just like grandparents usually do.
They invited our family to Christmas and Easter celebrations, which provided lifelong memories. Having these individuals in our family life was never something planned, but as I look back, they served as essential loved ones that filled a void their grandparents could not. My children would say the relationship may be different than their grandparents, but they hold them in a special place in their hearts.
Over the years, I have watched many grandparents pick up where their adult children have not. I have observed a grandpa who brought his grandson to Mass every Sunday. I was thrilled to see that grandson got married in the church and later read in the bulletin that the grandson’s baby was baptized.
I know numerous friends that have had to raise their grandchildren in their homes and take on the significant responsibilities of parenting them. Even my sister took her grandchildren into her home at 50 years of age. Immediately she got the children baptized, brings them to Mass weekly, and although it is a tough financial stretch, she has placed her grandkids into Catholic schools. She will be nearing 70 when the youngest goes off to college.
Grandparents and the elderly have always played a role in the lives of the generation once removed. Still, at an alarming rate, grandparents and other elderly folks are placed in a position where they take on the heroic role of parenting and being the spiritual leader in place of the biological parents.
I am not a grandparent yet, and I don’t think I am elderly either (although my children would say otherwise). I did assume I would be blessed with grandchildren by now, but that status is not up to me. I know I am not getting younger, and I hope that if blessed, my children know that my husband and I are willing and ready to take on the role of grandparenting. I hope we raised our children so that they know parenting is a lot more than having children, and they accept and live out the crucial role of being spiritual leaders for our grandchildren.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the foundation we gave our children will stand up to the pressures of our current culture. Every one of our children knows how important parenting is to the salvific future of their children and we hope that priority is theirs as well.
Pope Francis has always had a pulse on where the wounds are in this world. He has rightly acknowledged a need to elevate the respect given to grandparents and the elderly across the globe. We owe a great deal of respect to those individuals who serve the family and our church with their steadfast devotion to Christ and the church. Just like Sts. Anne and Joachim, the current oldest generation has played a vital role in holding up faith for those that come after them, and that service needs to be acknowledged and encouraged.
Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.