Meeting for those responsible for The Pastoral Care of The Elderly in The Episcopal Conferences

Catherine Wiley, founder of the Catholic Grandparents Association.

Catherine Wiley – The Founder of The CGA attended a webinar for The Pastoral Care of The Elderly in The Episcopal Conferences – Rome


It is perhaps self-evident, to state that to be a grandparent is not simply a matter of fact borne out of biological or familial relationship, it is also, and preeminently, a vocation.  Similarly, to be an older person brings with it a vocation to live life in a new way, relating to others with the special gifts that time and experience have brought.

Ageing may bring particular challenges, such as infirmity and illness, but these are neither inevitable nor essential to being either an older person or a grandparent.  If they come, however, they bring with them a perspective and set of experiences that can be unique and precious to the individual and the whole community.  Empathy, solidarity and an understanding of suffering can mean that older members of the community and grandparents are a natural place of support for younger people and grandchildren.  We must, though, avoid stereotyping. Many older people are highly active both physically and intellectually. In many countries they provide the backbone of core parts of the economy.  Critically for the Church, it is older people and grandparents that frequently form the greater part of congregations and of the vast voluntary workforce that enables the institution to function on a local, national, and global scale.  In particular, it is grandparents and older members of the Church community that are pivotal in the passing on of faith to younger people in a world where parents are often pressured in so many ways and unable, or unwilling, to engage in faith formation.

Time and experience of life bring many gifts and help to perfect many virtues.  Wisdom helps to counter the false god of idealism in which goodness if often overlooked in pursuit of perfection.  Those with grandchildren struggling to make sense of their identity in the contemporary world, or whose relationships have followed far from ‘ideal’ paths, know the potential for love present in all lives.  They also know the power of acceptance in meeting people where they are, rather than where you would like them to be.  Hope provides a powerful counter to a tide of cynicism that too often assumes the worst.  Walking in accompaniment with adult children and grandchildren, through the challenges that life throws up, it brings a longer view rooted in concrete experiences. The vocation of the grandparent is one of ambition and hope for others. Similarly, experience and faith enable the new to be embraced.  Certain in their faith in God, and in their fellows, they can provide a beacon of light to those who are younger; recognizing that the new does not mean abandonment of the old.  To draw on St John Henry Newman, ‘to grow is to change and to be perfect is to have changed many times’.  When you have had to change many times, you can understand the fears and the opportunity that this brings and help to guide others.  Age brings most of all the opportunity to grow in love.  This may mean spousal love for some, love of children and grandchildren for some, and of neighbour and wider humanity for all.  Above all, for the Christian grandparent, this opportunity is for love of God and for the moments of encounter with Christ that are afforded by relationships, experience, sacraments and prayer. All of these virtues come together in the witness, evangelism and catechetical mode of life that marks out the vocation of the grandparent and older person.

Virtues are, of course, known by their fruits and these are seen through ministry and service.  I would like to suggest two key ministries: a ministry of and a ministry to grandparents and older people.  Younger people find themselves faced with enormous and novel challenges in a world of technological and moral change.  Grandparents provide a vital anchor in a world of uncertainty.   Too often, the ministry of the older person is seen as that of one whose practical or active ministry is over, their role being to provide prayer.  This does a disservice to both notions of ministry and of prayer.  The intimate link between prayer and action has always been known and defines the ministry of older people.  Grandparents are often major providers of care for adult children and grandchildren, facilitating the economy, education and devotional life essential to any family.  It is often grandparents who bring young children to the sacraments and help in their formation.  It is often older people who visit and support others who are in need. It is often the retired who provide the works that enable the broader communion of parish life, providing witness and embracing moments of evangelization to draw others into the Church. 

This is a ministry that supports the ministry of others but also one that needs support as something of value in itself.  Therefore, we must also have a ministry to grandparents and older people.  Some of this will be related to age and the needs of supporting multigenerational families and will need to take into account the special vulnerabilities of older people.  Most of this ministry, however, will be to support the dynamic and ambitious work carried out by older people every day.  Their spiritual, emotional and practical needs can, and do, all receive huge support from the Church but we perhaps lack detailed understanding of the specific needs of older people and grandparents, and we must address this.  This will help to move beyond stereotypes and counter the ageism that provides a block to older people in the Church and secular society.  It will also help to challenge a prevailing view in secular society that devalues life, whether it is before birth or towards the end of life.  In celebrating and recognizing the fullness of life in all its glory we can make concrete an ethic that protects the vulnerable.

Whilst a ministry to, and a ministry of grandparents and older people are critical to the life of the Church, making it real in all of its potential will above all require a ministry with grandparents and older people.  This will require listening to those who often are not heard, and taking seriously their experience and needs.  In short, it will need a concrete manifestation of synodality.  This is why we have worked with Popes St John Paul II and Benedict XVI to build the World Day for Grandparents and the Prayer for Grandparents.  We hope that this celebration of grandparents and older people will receive the same level of attention and investment that other initiatives, such as World Youth Day, receive.  We are clear that older people and grandparents have a role in the future and don’t simply represent a continuity with the past.  This sense that the old represent the past only, and have no future is what underpins the ageism that devalues life in secular society and, unfortunately, is not absent from the Church.

Grandparents and older people stand ambitiously in their desire to serve their families, the Church and society as a whole.  As a Church we have an opportunity to free that potential and show the world the value of life at all ages and stages of life. We need this Ministry for Grandparents and Elderly in every Parish in the World. That is what our Holy  Father is asking us to do  That is why he has given us our World day for Grandparents and  Elderly. 

After 2000 years we cannot and will not be the generation that fails to pass on the faith. This is my sacred job to pass on my faith. After 77 years of life, 56 years of marriage, 4 children and ten grandchildren, as well as nursing six of my siblings at the end of life, my faith is precious to me, and I will never retire from this sacred duty to share our faith.