At the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, the Founder of the Catholic Grandparents Association, Catherine Wiley, gave the following speech which received a standing ovation. Her speech is reproduced here following hundreds of requests from those in attendance.
Witness and testimony of Grandparents and practical experience to families
Many of us here today are Grandparents, Great Aunts, Great Uncles. But each and every one of us is also a Grandchild. So all of us have an opportunity just for a little while to think about our own Grandparents, to thank God for them and to recall the particular memories and ways in which they have influenced our lives and inspired us, even to this day. Somebody once said “You will forget what people said, and you will forget what people did, but you will never forget how they made you feel” and that’s the extraordinary gift of Grandparents.
As a Grandchild I only knew my maternal Grandfather. I remember his great love for me and my sense of safety in his care. It was from him I heard my first Gospel stories – my first image of prayer was at his knee reciting the family Rosary. We were surrounded by people of faith. As children we took our faith for granted; we can no longer take the faith of our Grandchildren for granted.
Nowadays Grandparents do not get nearly the attention they deserve for the vital contribution they make to the family, to the church and society. Particularly when it comes to matters of faith.
Understandably, a huge amount of attention is given to youth ministry. We worry, particularly in the West, about the future of the faith; few young people practise their faith or have any real understanding of it.
I am passionate in promoting awareness for the great vocation of Grandparents, grandparents ministry, particularly in Grandparents themselves, because very often they just do not realize how enormous their sphere of influence really is – emotionally, physically, financially and, most important of all, spiritually. The Church needs to pay more attention to Grandparents and to support them while they are supporting everyone else.
Grandparents are role models for their families in passing on morals and values. They are the crucial link between generations. They act as primary care-givers, baby-sitters and are often the family bank. They are a constant; a stabilising force particularly when there is divorce or breakdown in the family. They are the glue that holds the family together. Grandparents are the ones who provide an anchor for bruised and hurting adult children, and provide a source of support and stability for little people whose world has fallen apart. None of this is unrelated to the fact that for many Grandparents, faith is an anchor. It allows them to be the centre of stability, because they are secured by something deeper than themselves.
My Faith has always been very important to me and has sustained me in all the ups and downs of life. I am a Grandmother to ten beautiful Grandchildren; some are not baptised; some of my own children have fallen away from the faith; we have divorce in our family, so my husband and I are no strangers to the difficulties, challenges and heartache of modern day Catholic family life.
When I discovered that there were many other Grandparents in the same boat, sharing the same heartaches and anxieties as myself, I looked around for ways to try and remedy this.
In 2002, with the blessing of John Paul II, we started the first Catholic Grandparents’ Pilgrimage at the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham. The idea was inspired in the medieval Slipper Chapel on Our Lady’s birthday. I was wondering what I could possibly give her for a birthday present that would delight her. The idea came fairly instantly; a Grandparents’ Pilgrimage to honour and thank her parents, Saints Joachim and Anne, Grandparents of Jesus and all Grandparents, for all they have done for us down through the ages, particularly in the transmission of the faith. So Grandparents’ Pilgrimages were born. This is now a worldwide movement and Pilgrimages form the central part of our activities.
Seven years ago, I wrote to our Holy Father in desperation and begged him to write a universal prayer for Grandparents because as a Grandmother, even though I was a practising Catholic, I felt I was failing my family. I felt unable to pass on my faith, because some members of my family were scorning and rejecting it. I felt hurt and excluded.
Nobody believed that the Pope would ever write the prayer. I never doubted it. My mission was to ensure that he saw the request (not an easy task as you can imagine). I knew, absolutely, that once he did, he would not hesitate, and when he did, he summed it up perfectly.
you were born of the Virgin Mary,
the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anne.
Look with love on Grandparents the world over.
Protect them! They are a source of enrichment
for families, for the Church and for all of society.
Support them! As they grow older,
may they continue to be for their families
strong pillars of Gospel faith,
guardians of noble domestic ideals,
living treasuries of sound religious traditions.
Make them teachers of wisdom and courage,
that they may pass on to future generations the fruits
of their mature human and spiritual experience.
help families and society
to value the presence and roles of Grandparents.
May they never be ignored or excluded,
but always encounter respect and love.
Help them to live serenely and to feel welcomed
in all the years of life which you give them.
Mary, Mother of all the living,
keep Grandparents constantly in your care,
accompany them on their earthly Pilgrimage,
and by your prayers, grant that all families
may one day be reunited in our heavenly homeland,
where you await all humanity
for the great embrace of live without end. Amen
You can see why our Holy Father has become known as the champion of Grandparents – the Grandparents’ Pope. He understands.
Grandparents desperately needed this prayer to help restore their confidence and strengthen their faith. They need to be reassured that the Church is aware of their plight and is there to help them. And they need to be given the courage and support to proclaim their faith, to fulfil their sacred obligation of passing on the faith. Grandparents are the natural Evangelisers embedded in the heart of the family.
I have waited and prayed for an opportunity such as this one here today, to share this inspiring, comforting, prayer with Grandparents everywhere so they may know that our Holy Father cared enough about Grandparents to write this very special prayer just for them to show how much they are loved and valued by him and by our Holy Mother Church. Please. Take this prayer back to your countries, your parishes, share it far and wide. Thanks to the Pontifical Council for the Family we have it in all languages. Hang it in your churches and pray it every day.
You may wonder why I am reading this prayer now. Why not pray it together at the end? I am reading it now because it encapsulates everything we do and everything we need to do in the future to help and support each other in the great task of passing on the faith.
In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI blessed the first Grandparents’ Pilgrimage to Ireland which struck a chord with the Irish people and it showed them the way and gave them hope. When Cardinal Seán Brady launched the Catholic Grandparents Association in Knock, Ireland, there were 14,000 Grandparents present. Imagine the power of that prayer – 14,000 people united with the same aim and same goal – all wanting to do their best for their Grandchildren.
After receiving the Holy Father’s Prayer for Grandparents, we founded the Catholic Grandparents Association to fulfil the great need that the people of Ireland themselves said they needed.
The main aim of the Catholic Grandparents Association is to help Grandparents pass on their Faith and to keep prayer at the heart of family life.
Grandparents’ Pilgrimages affirm and acknowledge Grandparents, enabling and empowering them in passing on the faith. There are now Grandparents’ Pilgrimages in England, Ireland, America, Slovenia, Australia, Tanzania, Cambodia, Nigeria to name but a few – and the word is spreading. Last year we had the opportunity to speak at the annual European Shrine Director’s Conference in Walsingham. Without exception, every Shrine Director agreed to have a Grandparents’ Pilgrimage starting in 2012.
We see this not as a success story, but as a significant move by the Church inspired by the Holy Spirit to meet the crisis which we all know exists, the crisis in handing on the faith and the vital role that Grandparents have to play in this. This is the central feature of all our Pilgrimages – to help Grandparents to pass on the faith.
To coincide with Pilgrimages we have children’s prayer appeals. Grandchildren write prayers, pouring out their love for their Grandparents, and these prayers are blessed at the Offertory of Pilgrimage Masses. This is done with the help of the family and the school.
We organize Grandparents’ Days in schools, bringing Grandparents and Grandchildren together to share stories and compare histories. This is one of the most popular days now in schools and, in Ireland, takes place in every school, as it does in America, New Zealand and is becoming hugely successful in England.
We organize groups in parishes so that Grandparents can come together without fear, shame or embarrassment to pray, share their joys and anxieties and help and support each other in the great task of passing on the faith. I have a dream that there will be a group of the Catholic Grandparents Association in every parish in every country.
And most importantly we promulgate our Holy Father’s Prayer for Grandparents, far and wide, wherever and whenever we get the opportunity, because we recognise it as the greatest instrument of Evangelisation and the linchpin of all we do.
Research suggests there is an ever increasing gap between Grandparents and Grandchildren regarding their knowledge of the faith. The Grandparents’ generation still has a firm knowledge and a firm commitment; whilst Grandchildren show an inadequate knowledge and therefore a decreasing commitment to it.
This is a serious gap and researchers who have done this work look to organisations such as ours to try and remedy this. There is no known organisation such as the Catholic Grandparents Association, which is very surprising.
In 2007 The Iona Institute conducted a poll on levels of religious knowledge in Ireland which found that those aged between 15 and 24 frequently didn’t know even the basics of the faith, the ABCs as it were.
For example, a third didn’t know what the Church celebrates at Easter. Only half could name the Holy Trinity. Less than half could name the first book of the Bible. Only one in twenty knew the First Commandment. Only 10 per cent could say what the Immaculate Conception is.
It is clear, then, that there is a great urgency about this. The next ten years are absolutely vital. When this generation passes from the scene what’s going to happen? There will only be a relative handful of people left with an interest in passing on the faith.
But passing on the faith is not an easy job these days and nobody seems quite sure whose job it is! The school s knows it’s the parents’ responsibility, whilst parents are leaving it to the schools.
Grandparents probably assume that their Grandchildren are at least picking up the basics of the faith from school. But nothing can be assumed as The Iona Institute poll indicates.
One teacher recounted to me that when teaching in a variety of primary schools in Dublin she would sometimes ask the children, usually aged around 10, who Jesus is. Some had no idea. One boy suggested he was a teacher.
As professional child-care nowadays is often expensive, this service is being provided by relatives, frequently Grandparents.
This means that lots of young children spend many hours per week with their Grandparents. This puts those Grandparents in an excellent position to pass on some of the rudiments of the Catholic faith to their Grandchildren.
How many of you worry about the future of the faith of your Grandchildren? I’ll bet most of you do. You are right to worry about it and you probably want to know what to do to pass it on. The answer is, “An awful lot”.
Grandparents might imagine that they need to know a lot about theology to teach anything to their Grandchildren. Any one of you can read a children’s bible to your Grandchildren to make sure they know at least the more familiar bible stories like the story of Moses, the Good Samaritan, David and Goliath, the parting of the Red Sea and Samson, not to mention the stories from the Four Gospel, children often prefer the Old Testament because of the many colourful stories in it. Children like these stories. Anyone can tell a child the three names of the Holy Trinity even if you cannot explain the Holy Trinity.
No-one needs a degree in theology to tell someone the name of the first book of the Bible is the Book of Genesis, or to say that the Church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus at Easter, or to teach that the First Commandment is to worship no other gods but God. Reading the story of the first Passover, for example, is a way of introducing Grandchildren to the origins of the Mass.
In fact, reading through a children’s Bible is probably the single best way to teach both yourself and your Grandchildren about Christianity because as you read through the stories and explain what they are about, you are teaching yourself by teaching them. Your faith and the Bible become more alive to you.
Send your grandchildren a letter, maybe with a little present in it. Give them religious presents, maybe a picture of their guardian Angel for their room. Tell them about Saints names days. Take them to visit the graves of their ancestors, tell them the stories of the family. Keep holy water in the holy water font, sprinkle them and bless them with it. Say Grace before meals, even if they don’t know it, they soon will. Take them to Mass and the Sacraments as often as you can. When they are in trouble at school and your daughter asks you for advice, tell her to take them to confession – use the Church. We live in a desacrileged society. We need to encourage our grandchildren and we can by our loving example. Skype them if they are far away, keep in touch as best you can.
Many Grandchildren don’t know what the Catholic Church is or have any real conception that they are baptized Catholics and what it means to be a Catholic. Perhaps the best way to explain this to a child is to say that the Catholic Church is the group of people who believe in Jesus and have the Pope as their head teacher on Earth. Make sure that before your Grandchild goes to college they know about their faith, because other people will be very quick to tell them about theirs.
So the only safe assumption to make with children is that they know nothing whatever about the faith and to go from there. Grandparents obviously can’t do it all on their own, but they can do much more than they think to preserve some bit of the faith they themselves hold so dear.
The vocation of Grandparents is rooted in love. For me, this is the most noble of all vocations. There is a unique bond of trust and love between Grandparents and Grandchildren. Very often you have a much better relationship with your Grandchildren than with your own children.
When you are a parent you want different things for your children – a good education, a good job, financial security. Grandparents have no agenda – they want their Grandchildren to be able to make good decisions, to have values and to live good, moral lives. If they go astray, they have a compass to bring them back to a loving, non-judgemental God who is always waiting with open arms. You will have shown them the way.
Being a Grandparent is an art – you have to be sensitive, delicate and unobtrusive, know when to give advice and know when to step back and always be there when needed. The wisdom of Grandparents will tell them when to step back – which, in some cases, is more important than getting involved, for many reasons. Grandparents are there to support the parents, not replace them or undermine them.
A loving Grandparent can do anything. We live in a multi-cultural and multi-faith world that is becoming more secularised every day. Sometimes your Grandparents or great-Grandparents can all have different faiths and different expectations!
We live in unprecedented times of broken and fragmented families with constantly changing social and moral values. Our children are under tremendous social pressure to follow the gods of personal freedom, money and success. We do everything we can to support them even though, from time to time, there might be a conflict of ideals. Sometimes we don’t know where to go or who to turn to.
One aspect of growing family breakdown that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the fact that following the ending of a marriage, Grandparents can often lose contact with their Grandchildren.
It is understandable that more attention is given to the danger that the children will lose contact with one of their parents, almost always the father.
When a Grandparent has less contact or no contact at all, with the Grandchildren they love, the feeling of loss is acute. This makes Grandparents the hidden victims of family breakdown. A Grandfather said to me quite recently that the failure of the family fell on the shoulders of the Grandparents and Grandparents often feel that they are failing.
But the Grandchildren also lose out because Grandparents have something invaluable to give to them, namely their love, the wisdom that comes from experience, and often their faith.
The modern world values freedom, it values individualism and that’s why it values tolerance. But your generation, our generation, values community, it values commitment, and this extends above all else to our families and our marriages because this is something else we stick at.
None of us has a perfect marriage I’m sure, and some of us have probably had unhappy marriages. Some of us have made mistakes we’ve regretted. But overall we older people stick at our marriages because we put our children’s happiness first and our own, second. Personal happiness comes a distant second behind our responsibilities. We put duty first and rights second.
And Grandparents still do that even when their own children are grown up because Grandparents still put themselves at the service of their families first and foremost by making themselves available to mind and care for these Grandchildren. So imagine what would happen if Grandparents went on strike? The whole world would collapse in a heap. You are vital.
Now, ask yourselves where your values of duty and responsibility and self-sacrifice and loyalty came from? Well, one of the most important places they came from was the Church. This is why the Church is such a pillar of society and it is why the scandals of late have been so disastrous. If the Church is weakened, society is weakened.
I’d go so far as to say no group has a more important role to play in passing on the faith than Grandparents. The reason is because you still treasure your faith, you want to pass it on and you have a great opportunity to do so namely through your contact with your Grandchildren.
I feel that my speaking at this conference marks the coming of age of the Catholic Grandparents Association. We feel that we have the full support of the church, we feel that we are recognised at the highest level as an organisation which is needed in this day and age and it is a privilege for us to serve by our Pilgrimages and by all our other activities. To serve the church and indeed to serve humanity in this vital task of passing on the faith.
We feel that it is a mark of God’s providence that we have been called upon to begin our major effort in Ireland.
It is true that as Ireland takes its place as a sovereign self-governing nation, some of the values of the world will begin to affect it. Perhaps, regrettably in our eyes but we in the Catholic Grandparents Association from the vast number of Grandparents who throng our pilgrimages in knock every year, know that Ireland is still a Catholic country.
If further evidence is needed we have seen how the Irish Government has accepted our idea of Grandparents’ Days in schools as an annual feature of all Primary Schools which it controls, so it is in fertile soil that our first seeds have been sown.
There are other perhaps less obvious reasons which make Ireland more favourable for the early years of our organisation.
In this still catholic country careful studies have been made of the central purpose of our association namely the handing on of our faith.
In Ireland, to name but one country, there is a real danger that the chain of faith, which goes back 1,500 years in our case, will soon be broken. It is the grandparents of Ireland who are the strongest link in this chain at present and when they pass on, what will happen to the faith in Ireland, certainly it will be much weaker.
This is why it is so important to mobilise grandparents to pass on their faith to the youngest generation. Grandparents need to be given the confidence and the means to do so. In fact they need to be persuaded that in most cases they already possess the means because they already know the basics of the faith and are living it out in their lives. Their simple fidelity to the life of the Church, to the Sacraments and to daily prayer is their greatest testimony to their families.
Our desire now is to see this important movement, the Catholic Grandparents Association, embedded in the life of the local Church throughout the world. We call upon our Episcopal conferences to ensure that the Grandparents’ vocation is acknowledged and celebrated at diocesan and parochial level. That the vocation of Grandparents is nurtured by catechesis and forms part of pastoral plans. That Regional Shrines, particularly those dedicated to Our Lady celebrate Grandparents’ Pilgrimages and encourage their faithful to embrace and nurture this important work.
In this upcoming year of “Faith”, we kindly call upon Pope Benedict XVI to lead a Grandparents’ Pilgrimage in 2013 and to create a World Grandparents’ Day, just like we have a World Youth Day, so that Grandparents everywhere can be united in love and prayer and support each other in the great task of passing on the faith.
This is the purpose of the Catholic Grandparents Association and the task could hardly be more important. This is why we would like to spread our message as far and wide as possible and see the Association founded in as many countries as possible. We are all in this together and together we cannot fail – failure, in this case, is not an option.
You have all accomplished an incredible amount in your lives but there is one incomparable job to do. Probably the most important job you will ever have in your life, and one from which you can never retire and that is to pass on your glorious gift of faith to your Grandchildren.
In this forthcoming year of “Faith”, we call upon Pope Benedict XVI to lead a Grandparents’ Pilgrimage in 2013 and to create a World Grandparents’ Day, just like we have a World Youth Day, so that Grandparents everywhere can be united in love and the great task of passing on the faith. Take these concepts back to your countries and parishes – let “Grandparents show the world the way.”
The Catholic Grandparents Association motto is “Passing on the Faith”. The task is great, the need is urgent and the timing is crucial. We have only just scratched the surface. Our faith is not being handed down. And we need to do something about it. Now.