“The prayers of parents and grandparents are a powerful and tremendous gift” – Archbishop Martin Homily during the Catholic Grandparents Pilgrimage at Knock Shrine
A few miles outside of Derry City, and just over the border in Donegal, my father is buried in the beautiful country churchyard of Saint Patrick’s in Iskaheen. Every time I visit there I feel a strong sense of ‘connection’ with my ‘roots’, because it was in Saint Patrick’s that my mother was baptised, where she and my father made their First Communion, and where they were married. In the old graveyard my maternal grandparents and great grandparents were laid to rest and, as my mother says, I am probably connected in some way to nearly everyone else buried there!
I expect that many of you have your own places of ‘connection’ like Iskaheen. We live in a ‘connected’ world which is all about networks and links, but sometimes we forget that ‘family’ is perhaps the most natural network of them all.
Family is all about ‘connection’, and you, my dear grandparents of Ireland, are vital links in the chain. As Pope Francis says, you help us to appreciate “the continuity of the generations” (Amoris Leatitia 192). Very often it is you who ensure that faith and the most important values are passed down to your grandchildren. Your words and affection help children and young people to realize that history did not begin with them, but that we are all part of an age-old pilgrimage. You bridge the generation gap.
Earlier this week I did a bit of research, asking a few people what is it like to be a grandparent? I heard about the joy that grandchildren can bring, how grandchildren can give you a new lease of life, and help to keep you feeling young. You can have the time to give them that perhaps you didn’t have when your own children were growing up. Of course one granny honestly admitted that, while the grandchildren are great fun to be with, it’s sometimes a relief when they go home at the end of a tiring visit!
Bridging the generation gap as a grandparent isn’t always easy, especially knowing when to speak and what to say. Every new generation brings change, new challenges, and different ways of thinking. Older people can be labelled as being ‘un-modern’, not ‘with-it’, and even accused of ‘interfering’. It can be difficult to connect with your children and grandchildren in their struggles to cope with the pressures of today.
One grandmother asked me recently to pray for her daughter’s marriage – the family lives in a lovely, four-bedroom house with all the ‘mod cons’ but huge demands from work are putting pressure on their relationship. She looks after her grandchildren four times a week, and often also on Saturdays because the parents feel the need to relax with friends after the exhaustion of their busy week. She brings the children to Mass on a Sunday and, last year, because mum and dad were caught up in other things, she attended the ‘Do this in Memory’ programme when the wee-fellow was making his First Holy Communion. The children have their own rooms, TVs, iPads and headphones and she says she’s not sure what they’re watching or playing on their computers. It was so different when we were growing up, she says. Everyone seems so isolated today, even lonely.
Perhaps some of her story is familiar. I encouraged her to keep on loving and talking to her children and grandchildren, gently seeking moments to bring them together. Although family is all about relationship, it can still be difficult to make connections in a generation which can be so individualistic, emphasising ME time: MY space, MY needs, MY independence, MY rights. What’s needed of course is opportunities together as a couple and family, to work on OUR needs, our future, our happiness. It is true heart to heart communication like this that builds and holds family together.
Sometimes, as grandparents, you may wish to step in and say something, to point out gently and in love what you think is right and wrong. You want to offer the wisdom and even the pain of your own life experiences, especially when you are worried that your children and grandchildren could be putting the future of their family at risk.
Today’s readings speak about our responsibility to correct someone when we see them going wrong. The prophet Ezekiel speaks about warning the wicked man ‘to renounce his wicked ways and repent’. In the Gospel Reading Jesus tells his disciples: “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him”, and if necessary get others to help you win back your brother. This can be difficult nowadays in a generation which would hold up the right to individual choice as being so important- even more important than the right to life itself.
But I believe it is possible to offer correction nowadays, and to point out what is right and what is wrong. But unless we do so with love, tenderness and mercy, we will simply be seen as interfering, we will be told to ‘back off’ and our efforts will fall on deaf ears. To correct with love – that’s where you grandparents come into your own. You are not, of course, there to replace the consciences of your children and grandchildren, but neither should you shy away from helping them to form their consciences. Saint Paul in today’s second reading has good advice for all of us:
“Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments”.
As grandparents you are in a unique position to offer loving advice and correction, even. By word and example you can teach your children and grandchildren that families are built on mutual love, respect, loyalty, sincerity, trust and cooperation (Pope Francis General Audience 7 October 2015).
My dear grandparents, you are present at the happy and sad moments in the lives of your children and grandchildren. You share their joys, their fears and their worries. You are there for them during pregnancy as they experience the joy of motherhood and fatherhood, or perhaps when they are struggling to have children, or have a miscarriage or tragically at times on the death of a child. You help them to learn what it means to be a mother and a father, a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister. You teach them about the honour, sacrifices, responsibilities and generosity that hold family life together. You offer support and offer understanding to single mothers left to raise children, to families who struggle with addictions, and those who experience financial problems or the special challenges of disability or illness. You look out for, and intervene when you see the horrible signs of domestic violence or aggression.
And you keep on caring even when your children’s family situation may not be what you would have wanted for them. You do not stop loving someone whose marriage has broken down or if their family is wounded or if they are in a new relationship or family situation.
The Church has a lot to learn from you, grandparents. The Church is often described as Mother Church. I sometimes think that as well as being a loving mother, the Church is also called to be like a caring grandmother or grandfather, to share the joys, fears and worries of her families. The Church will correct her children with merciful love when they are at risk of harm or danger, but she will never give up on reaching out to her children – even those who may feel disconnected or excluded from her. Like any good Mother or Grandmother, the Church offers the support and encouragement of her prayer, the Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. She urges families to pray together, remembering as today’s Gospel Reading says, where two or three people gather together in the name of Jesus, he is there among them. Of course, the prayers of parents and grandparents are a powerful and tremendous gift – I’ve noticed that when my nieces and nephews are doing exams or need special prayers, they’ll ask their granny to pray for them before they’ll ask their uncle, the Archbishop!!
Pope Francis has said: “The prayer of grandparents and of the elderly is a great gift for the Church, it is a treasure! A great injection of wisdom for the whole of human society: above all for one which is too busy, too taken up, too distracted (Pope Francis Audience 11 March 2015)”.
My dear grandparents, on behalf of the children and grandchildren of Ireland, and on behalf of the Church, I thank you today from my heart for your prayer, your wisdom, your generosity, your loving correction, and for being such an important part of our lives and for keeping us connected to who we are as family, and as Church. Amen.