Q: Archbishop J, why a day for grandparents and the elderly?
Our grandparents and the elderly are indispensable for a renewed tomorrow. They hold the burden of civilisation past and represent it to the new generation. They are the bridge between tradition and humanising our present culture. They hold the wisdom of the ages past and bring it to bear on the emerging culture seeking to integrate the past and the present, offering wisdom and guidance.
Pope Francis begins his letter to grandparents with a reflection on the Scripture: “I am with you always” (Mt 28:20). Here we see the Lord’s promise that regardless of the season of our life, God renews His promise to be faithful at every stage of our journey. Whether young or old, we must all remember, God is with us.
I remember my Granny
My maternal grandparents lived with two unmarried siblings. When her mother died Granny left school, stayed home, and became mother to the 12 other children. All of them were more accomplished in the ways of the world than she was. But she was the mother to all of them.
She had an incredible faith. She did not speak a lot about her faith, but her actions were clear. When they were moving from Belmont the agent asked where they wanted to live, she said, on the cool side of the road, walking distance from the church and a grocery. That was it.
Granny walked to Mass every morning so the proximity to the church was vital. She did not drive and cooked for the household every day, so the grocery was vital. In the evening, she sat in the verandah and enjoyed the view with Aunty Carmen, her sister. During two years of primary school and all my years of secondary school, I had lunch with them every day. We had a special bond. She was a prayer warrior and often prayed for me during exams and times of need.
A pilgrimage to Mount St Benedict was reserved for very special needs. The ordinary prayer was focused on her chaplet in her bedroom.
Once I came home from a difficult exam and saw her outside and greeted her. She smiled and said nothing. She walked inside, went to her chaplet and knelt for a while. She stood, blew out the candle and turned to me and said: “How was the exam?”.
I might have been the subject of the prayer, but God was the object and much more important than I.
By the time I was ordained in 1991, Granny was in a state of dementia for several years. She had been holding on to life by a thread for some time. I had this sense that Granny was waiting for me to say Mass for her.
I arranged and went to say Mass at her bedside, anointed her and gave her viaticum. Before I reached where I was going, she died. She waited on me to minister to her as a priest. She was the one that taught me that God was always first in everything in my life.
My aunt Mona who was caring for her could not believe the events. A similar thing happened with Granny’s brother, Earnest. I said Mass for him and then he died.
On her dying bed, she taught me the power of the priesthood to send a soul to God, that what I was doing was of immense value to the soul, that people in dementia for years were still connected with their family and needed closure to leave this earth, that the sacraments were real and had a power and efficacy of their own.
All these lessons I have used countless times with families who did not know how to release their loved ones. Hers was the first funeral I did. That is as it should have been.
Transmitting the faith
In his letter to grandparents and the elderly, Pope Francis says: “In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the apostles, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (28:19–20). These words are also addressed to us today. They help us better understand that our vocation is to preserve our roots, to pass on the faith to the young, and to care for the little ones. Think about it: what is our vocation today, at our age? To preserve our roots, to pass on the faith to the young and to care for the little ones. Never forget this”.
Granny passed on the faith to us by word and deed, by her practices, her values, and her beliefs. She went to Mass every day and my sister and I would often ride to church and join her on a morning before school.
All her brothers and sisters who were financially much better off than she was came to her home as the family home. She had incredible dignity. Every week she went to market and bought items for all of us.
Several times a week, she would cook, and mum would pick up dinner on the way home. She had a spirit of humble service and a ‘can do’ attitude. We lived in separate houses, but we were an extended family.
Pope Francis reminds us: “…there is no retirement age from the work of proclaiming the Gospel and handing down traditions to your grandchildren. You just need to set out and undertake something new.”
By her life and witness, Granny did this in a most eloquent way.
Grandparents and the elderly are essential for socialising, support and transmitting of the faith to the next generation.
On this first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, reflect on your grandparents and the elderly in your life. What practices have they handed on to you? What values? What beliefs? If they are alive contact them. Pope Francis is giving a plenary indulgence for this. If not, pray for them during the day.