In September thousands of Catholics from all over the world will gather in Philadelphia for the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families. We Little Sisters of the Poor are looking forward to participating in this great event, the culmination of which will be a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. In preparation for the World Meeting, our Holy Father has been dedicating his weekly audiences to family issues, including the role of the elderly in family life.
In contemporary Western culture, the most common form of family is the small nuclear family unit. In more traditional societies, however, the ideal family is comprised of several generations. According to a recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 66 percent of American grandparents live more than 25 miles away from their grandchildren; 75 percent wish they could see their grandchildren more often.
In one of his Wednesday audiences Pope Francis deplored as a mortal sin the neglect of the elderly by younger family members who, he said, give in to a mentality of impatience, indifference or contempt. “How easily the conscience falls dormant when there is no love!” he exclaimed.
In contrast to such attitudes, our Holy Father advocated for what he called “a culture of closeness to the elderly, a disposition of warm and supportive companionship in this final phase of life.” He urged the faithful to “reawaken the collective sense of gratitude, of appreciation, of hospitality, which makes the elder feel like a living part of his community.”
Speaking directly to the elderly, he encouraged them to resist the temptation to become closed in on themselves. “How awful is the cynicism of an elderly person … who scorns the young and does not communicate the wisdom of life! How beautiful, however, is the encouragement an elderly person manages to pass on to a young person who is seeking the meaning of faith and of life! It is truly the mission of grandparents, the vocation of the elderly. The words of grandparents have special value for the young. And the young know it.”
The traditional role of grandparents – giving unconditional love and passing on family, cultural and religious values – is more needed than ever in our highly connected yet overly distracted world.
Speaking of connections, an array of online resources exists to help grandparents make the most of their privileged role in the family. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the American Grandparents Association (AGA) and the England-based Catholic Grandparents Association are just a few of the organizations offering advice and practical resources to seniors.
The Catholic Grandparents Association asserts that grandparenting is a great vocation. “Our title ‘grandparent’ is surely one of honor. ‘Grand’ is a word that signifies importance …What could be greater or more important than our vital task of handing on to future generations the values, skills, accomplishments of the past, enhanced by the additions and improvements of our own time? … When, as believing Christian grandparents, we talk of our special role in the handing on of the faith, … it becomes a calling, a calling from God … a vocation. It’s the vocation that gives meaning to our later years, when our strength starts to wane and our powers to decline…. As well as being great and important, this is a happy vocation, something to be welcomed and celebrated, something which lights up both our own later life and the early lives of our grandchildren.”
But grandparenting can also be a demanding and delicate task! The Catholic Grandparents Association suggests that the presence and example of grandparents should be “unobtrusive, never overbearing, always respectful of the rights and values of others. It involves always being at hand when needed, but never imposing oneself, never interfering. Knowing when to offer a helping hand or a word of advice, but also knowing when to stand back.”
As we look forward to the feast of Jesus’ grandparents, SS. Joachim and Anne, on July 26 may those of us who are younger take time out of our summer schedule to spend time with our grandparents and other elders in our families. And for those of you who are grandparents, call upon the intercession of SS. Joachim and Anne for the graces you need to fulfill your great and happy vocation!
Sister Constance Veit is communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor.