This is an article by Carlos Briceño from the diocesan magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Joliet in Illinois. You can also listen to a podcast interview with Colleen here

To understand members of the Catholic Grandparents Association (CGA) and what their mission is, all you have to do is hear what happens at the beginning of their meetings.

Members share how many grandchildren each of the grandparents have present in their families, and then they pray.

“We really feel like that’s what our ministry is all about and why we’re there,” said Maureen Carr, referring to the grandchildren. “We don’t always count the number of grandparents [present] as much as we count the grandchildren we represent.”

The grandchildren, it’s all about the grandchildren.

And what the grandchildren need is at the core of CGA’s mission: to help grandparents pass on the faith to their grandkids and keep prayer at the heart of family life.

In the Diocese of Joliet, the first chapter of the CGA was established at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Darien during the fall of 2019. Members meet monthly — during the pandemic, it’s mostly been via Zoom. The group sponsors an annual Grandparent’s Mass, held on or near July 26, the feast day of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, the Blessed Mother’s parents and, thus, Jesus’ grandparents. They also go on an annual pilgrimage with member families.

CGA (www.catholicgrandparentsassociation.org/) began as the seed of an idea after Catherine Wiley became a grandparent for the first time. She and her husband had brought up their children in their family home, located in Walsingham, Norfolk, in England, about a mile from the National Shrine of Our Lady. Many people visited the shrine during pilgrimages, so with the blessing of local Church leaders, she organized the first national national grandparents’ pilgrimage to the shrine in 2003.

The pilgrimages continued there, and in Ireland, where Catherine and her husband bought a home, near the National Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, where, with the support of local Church officials, the first national grandparents’ pilgrimage was held in 2007. More than 10,000 grandparents attend each year on pilgrimage since then.

The association was officially launched during the pilgrimage to Knock in 2009. One of its goals is to reinforce the importance of what the Church teaches: the need to disciple and evangelize others. But the Church also sees older family members passing on the faith as vital.

According to the new Directory For Catechesis, which was released by the Vatican earlier this year, it says: “In addition to the parents, it is the grandparents, above all in certain cultures, who carry out a special role in the transmission of the faith to the very young. Scripture as well presents the faith of the grandparents as a witness for their grandchildren (cf. Tm 1:5). ‘The Church has always paid special attention to grandparents, recognizing them as a great treasure from both the human and social, as well as religious and spiritual, viewpoints,’ said Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2008. In the face of family crisis, grandparents, who are often more deeply rooted in the Christian faith and have a past rich with experience, become important points of reference.”

Colleen Lowery, a parishioner and former faith formation director at Our Lady of Carmel in Darien, said the thought of connecting Catholic grandparents together came to her in prayer last summer. She said that, once she heard about CGA, she felt it was time to move forward with the ministry.

With the encouragement of other grandparents, she got approval from her pastor, Father Michael O’Keefe, O.Carm., to start it. This summer, Colleen and Maureen Carr met with Bishop Richard E. Pates, the diocesan apostolic administrator at the time, and received his endorsement for the Catholic grandparent ministry in the Diocese of Joliet.

“My biggest dream, of course, with the ministry is that grandparents will pass on their faith and help keep prayer at the center of family life,” Lowery said. “My Catholic faith is the most important gift I could ever give my grandchildren. It has sustained me in all the ups and downs of life, and I am forever grateful my parents and grandparents passed on their faith to me. My hope is to create a greater awareness for the vocation of grandparents, so they have the confidence and courage to fulfill their vocation and help strengthen their family’s faith life.”

She added that grandparents often times say they are concerned about the future of their family’s spiritual life. Grandparents, however, can share the beauty and richness of the faith with the younger generations.

“I tell them [grandparents] to pass on the torch of faith, which has been passed on to us through the generations, because you love your grandchildren, and you love Jesus Christ,” she said. “We say to grandparents, ‘After 2,000 years, let us not be the generation that fails to pass it on. Say yes to God’s call. Be a disciple. Share the Good News with the next generation, your grandchildren. Be intentional about passing on your faith.’ ”

Another CGA member, Mary Burruss, said grandparents often have a lot to offer in terms of life and faith experiences, which is why she shares with her four grandkids — all under the age of eight — stories of how she grew up with the faith and some short stories about the lives of the saints. She also tries to teach them prayers, such as how to recite the “Hail Mary.”

When she first heard of the idea of getting together with other grandparents, she said she was excited.

“I thought it was a beautiful idea,” she said. “How wonderful to pray with other grandparents and to learn new things from other grandparents.”

She especially wanted to learn from them how others passed down the faith.

Maureen Carr passed down the faith to her children when they were growing up by always trying to have faith be part of their everyday activities. She adopts the same mindset with her four grandchildren, who range in age from one years old to seven.

For instance, she blesses them when they leave the house, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads, so that they know God is with them. She also likes to inspire them to do something special for their parents and siblings as a way to show care and gratitude for those they love.

She added that she loves being part of the CGA.

“The most important thing about this group is that being together strengthens all of us,” Maureen said, “We all know in our hearts exactly what our grandchildren need. We want them to follow Christ, and when we are together with other grandparents that feel that same way, we have so much more power. We need that strength; we need that encouragement.”

The pandemic has caused the group to alter some of its regular routines. One CGA member, Tony Kizlauskas, doesn’t see his grandchildren — two boys, ages 10 and 13 — as much in person. But that doesn’t prevent him from staying in touch with them when they watch a televised Sunday Mass, from Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, “together” from their respective homes. They text each other “peace be with you” during the sign of peace.

Although Tony says he knows the boys’ parents are the primary purveyors of faith to the children, it’s little things like texting “peace be with you” that remind his grandkids that he also is invested in their faith journeys as their grandfather.

“We care about our grandchildren as much as parents care about their kids,” Tony said. “And yet there are parents’ groups and parent-teacher associations, but there wasn’t anything for grandparents [until the CGA was created]. It’s a unique opportunity to see what [grandparents are] facing in terms of issues, and there’s a lot of camaraderie. We have a lot in common.”

Ultimately, the members of the CGA, just want to be good examples and witnesses to their grandkids. They would like all grandparents to know they are not alone. The CGA offers practical and spiritual support. Colleen Lowery’s words of encouragement to grandparents are simple:

“Let your grandchildren see you pray,” said Colleen, who has six grandchildren in her family. “Pray with them. Take them to church when you can. Talk to them about Jesus. Share how having faith helps you and share stories about the times when you recognized that God was there for you. Be a guiding light.”


FOR MORE INFORMATION

about the CGA or to start a chapter at your parish, contact Colleen Lowery at catholicgrandparentsolmc@gmail.com.