Today we are unwrapping a present from Pope Francis: the first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly.
Starting this weekend, we’ll celebrate it every year on the fourth Sunday of July, the Sunday closest to the feast day of Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Blessed Mother and of course the grandparents of Jesus, according to long tradition.
I am really delighted by the Holy Father’s idea, which connects with me on two levels. First, my own grandmothers played a huge and happy role in my young life. (My grandfathers died before I was born.) So did my elderly great-aunts.
Giving thanks for our grandparents and older relatives would be a good enough reason for a special day. That was certainly on the mind of Pope Francis, who has spoken often about his own grandmother Rosa.
But there’s a second reason to be grateful, just as important: all that grandparents and older family members, especially those who never married, do in passing on the faith.
This was true in my life, and I see it all the time in our parish. And when the Pope talks about his grandmother, he speaks about the role she played in his life of faith.
The voice of the elderly "is precious," Pope Francis said, "because it sings the praises of God and preserves the roots of the peoples." They remind us that "old age is a gift and that grandparents are the link between the different generation, to pass on to the young the experience of life."
Here’s a perfect example: I was with parishioners at a party after the celebration of a youngster’s First Holy Communion. The grandmother—by no means elderly—stood up to say a few words.
She began “I am so moved and happy today—even more than I was at the First Communion of my own girls.”
I must say her adult daughters looked a little bit startled.
The grandmother continued: “But only because my own faith means even more to me now than it did then.”
Most of us, myself included, have grown in the understanding of our faith over the years. Our relationship with Jesus has been tested and tried. It’s been strengthened and deepened by the passing of the years.
Those of us who’ve walked with the Lord for many years have acquired a spiritual wisdom and even a certain credibility we can share with the young.
We all know that parents are the primary educators of the children. That responsibility belongs to them by natural law. One of the terrible things about the Indian Residential Schools was the denial of that right. Parents are called by God to be the first teachers and catechists of their children.
However, there’s something unique about the relationship we have with grandparents and elders. They let kids get away with murder because they can send them home after the weekend. Precisely because they’re not expected to play the primary role in training and correcting their grandchildren, except in unusual cases, grandparents can more easily listen without judgment and teach without meeting resistance.
As I mentioned, there are countless examples of this right here in our parish—and ever-increasing opportunities for grandparents to share their faith. It’s a rare family where the grandparents aren’t helping with childcare, and in these financially stressed times many are paying Catholic school fees.
My own high school tuition was paid by my unmarried aunt until I was able to land a summer job at an outrageously high wage—$5.35 an hour, as I recall.
Before turning to today’s readings, I want to say something about what Pope Francis decided to call this celebration, the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. I didn’t know what to think about it at first—many of the grandparents I know are far from elderly! But I am very glad he went beyond grandparents to include others who have played a similar role.
Rolly and Molly Waechter were not blessed with children nor, of course, grandchildren. But they have been loved as grandparents by generations of young people in our parish—Molly as the coordinator of our parish religious education program, Rolly as the head of our Rites of Christian Initiation for Children program. Today is a day to give thanks for them, and others like them.
I often tell the story of the painting by William Kurelek in my great-grandparents' parish church in Toronto. It shows today’s miracle of the loaves and fishes taking place in a nearby park. The faces of those helping Jesus by gathering up the fragments are those of the three parish priests and a young deacon.
It’s more than appropriate that Kurelek showed priests and a future priest in his mural—after all, there is a strong Eucharistic theme in this miracle.
But Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
We must be fed by God’s Word before we are fed even by Christ’s Body and Blood. Sacraments, other than Baptism, are preceded by teaching. And, with due regard for the primary responsibility of parents, today’s grandparents are ideal for the role.
In our first reading today, Elisha says “Give it to the people and let them eat.” Elisha is not speaking to a priest or teacher or fellow prophet but to his “servant,” no doubt a disciple.
In the Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to make the miracle clearer by gathering up the abundant leftovers. It’s not a primary role, but an important one.
In the Church today, in difficult circumstances, every one of us must play our part in feeding hungry souls.
It seems like a very big challenge. But all of us, especially older Catholic discouraged by the times, need to remind ourselves that the hungry disciples of Elisha and the hungry disciples of Jesus were fed by God himself.
All of us, therefore, and grandparents especially, are called to pray—to ask the Lord, as our Psalm says, to give us our food in due season.
But as we pray, we do what we can do. We share with the young what we have, as Elisha and Jesus did. And as Jesus told his disciples, we invite them to sit down. Even the busiest youngster will usually take a break from video games and sports to listen to grandma or grandpa.
I urge everyone, young and old, to read the Pope’s message for this special day. He says some consoling things, recognizing that the pandemic has been very painful for older people. Just two weeks ago parishioners told me they were going to see their grandchildren for the first time in a year a half!
But let me end with one of the challenging things Francis says in his letter:
“It makes no difference how old you are, whether you still work or not, whether you are alone or have a family, whether you became a grandmother or grandfather at a young age or later, whether you are still independent or need assistance.
A big challenge to grandparents, but to all of us as well. You’re never too old to share the Good News, but you’re never too young either!