Grandparents as Guardians of Faith

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

It is into us that the lives of grandparents have gone. It is in us that their history becomes a future. (Charles and Ann Morse)

What is it about grandparents that is so lovely? I’d like to say that grandparents are God’s gifts to children. And if they can but see, hear and feel what these people have to give, they can mature at a fast rate. (Bill Cosby)

I have to confess, I’ve always felt a little cheated that I didn’t know either of my grandfathers. My grandfather on my dad’s side, Michael Tobin, died on June 10, 1918 when my dad was just about eight years old. My mom’s dad, Ralph Emerson Bradley, died on September 4, 1949 when I was still a little tyke. I think grandfathers are cool. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know mine.

On the other hand, I do have clear memories of my grandmothers, Matilda Tobin, who lived to be ninety-eight and died when I was in college, and Gertrude Bradley who passed on when I was about ten. I could tell you some funny stories about both of them and maybe someday I will.

On the seventh day, God rested. His grandchildren must have been out of town. (Gene Perret)

I’ve been thinking a lot about grandparents recently, perhaps because I just finished Confirmation season. And one of the neat things to see as I move around the diocese is the respect and genuine affection Confirmation students have for their grandparents. It comes across, for example, when students choose grandparents to be their sponsors and they approach me for a post-liturgy photo, their mutual pride spilling over. And when students write to me about their choice of sponsors, they often say something like, “I’ve chosen my grandfather to be my sponsor because he’s the best Catholic I know. He prays everyday, goes to Mass every Sunday and is really active in the Church. When I get older I hope to be like him.”

Wow, what a great and lasting tribute for a grandparent! And it strikes me that in the Church and society in which we live today, the role of grandparents as Guardians of the Faith is terribly important.

One of the most powerful handclasps is that of a new grandbaby around the finger of a grandfather. (Joy Hargrove)

One explanation of this role is found in a Church document that says that, “Older people are irreplaceable apostles.” “Irreplaceable apostles” – it’s a concise way of saying that older folks in the Church, and in our context today, grandparents, have an important and unique role to play in preserving the faith, practicing the faith, and handing it on to future generations, sometimes even skipping over the “in-between generation” that’s so often unchurched today.

When I speak of the “in-between generation” I’m thinking of those who are the parents of the children growing up today, children of catechetical age, children who are going to school and receiving the sacraments. Let’s say the “in-between generation” is roughly twenty-five to fifty years old.

Let’s face it – in all too many cases we’ve lost this generation. They were poorly catechized when they were kids, they don’t go to Mass on Sundays, they never go to Confession, they don’t support the Church, personally or financially, and they easily disregard Catholic teachings and practices. They often see the Church as a social convenience rather than a community of faith that has legitimate expectations and norms. It’s this generation that baptizes their kids and disappears for years, and doesn’t bother to have a Funeral Mass for their own mom and dad when the time comes.

No cowboy was ever faster on the draw than a grandparent pulling a baby picture out of a wallet. (Author unknown)

A grandmother pretends she doesn’t know who you are on Halloween. (Erma Bombeck)

It’s here that grandparents assume their roles as “irreplaceable apostles.” I know that it’s sometimes awkward for grandparents to talk to their own children about how the kids are being raised, especially when it comes to something sensitive like religion. The “in between generation” becomes defensive and even angry if an elder approaches the question. Sometimes grandparents are afraid of losing access to their grandchildren if they push too hard. That’s sort of sad, isn’t it?

Even while respecting boundaries, though, there are gentle things grandparents can do to be beacons of faith. They can practice the faith themselves, attending Mass and receiving the sacraments; they can say meal prayers when the family is gathered in their homes; they can have religious images and pictures around the house, images that might prompt questions from inquisitive, young minds; they can point to the religious meaning of holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, often lost in our secular society; they can buy their grandkids religious gifts that might become treasured keepsakes; they can tell their own stories of growing up, of attending Church and how their faith has helped them during difficult moments. Oh yes, there are many ways in which grandparents can be Guardians of the Faith.

Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children. (Alex Haley)

Dear grandparents, now as much as ever we need you to be guardians and transmitters of the faith. The stardust that you sprinkle over the lives of your grandchildren is the gift of faith, and through it, the gift of eternal life. Don’t underestimate the importance of your example. And for doing it so well, for being “irreplaceable apostles,” and for planting the seeds of faith in a new generation, thank you very much.

This column was previously published in The Rhode Island Catholic on June 10, 2010