Bishop McRaith likes to watch the reaction of the confirmation candidates as he recognizes their grandparents. He says you can see the glow of love on their faces.
'Presence and wisdom'
While Sept. 7 is the day on which the United States will recognize Grandparents Day this year, the Church has for some time honored the vast contributions grandparents can make in passing on the faith to younger generations. Last spring, the 18th plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family focused on the "presence and witness of grandparents in families."
Throughout the sessions, grandparents' powerful influence on the family was noted.
Grandparents support family values, affirm spiritual traditions, share faith experiences and offer unconditional love. Their memories form a special link between the past and the present. Their wisdom becomes the foundation upon which children can build their future. Their presence has a stabilizing influence.
"Who does not remember their grandparents?" Pope Benedict XVI asked at the close of the assembly. "Who can forget their presence and their witness by the domestic hearth? How many of us bear their names as a sign of continuity and gratitude?"
But he warned that recent trends in society, including the breakdown of the nuclear family, job transfers, rising divorce rates, the breakdown of people's sense of community and the increase in individualism have put strains on the traditional role of grandparents in family life.
Grandparents often live alone or in retirement communities that are located great distances from their grandchildren. As a result, many children are not fully exposed to the caring, sacrifice and love that grandparents offer.
"If grandparents, as is said often and on many sides, are a precious resource, it is necessary to put into practice coherent choices that allow them to be better valued," Pope Benedict added. "May grandparents return to being a living presence in the family, in the Church and in society. With regard to the family, may grandparents continue to be witnesses of unity, of values founded on fidelity and of a unique love that gives rise to faith and the joy of living."
Therese Boucher, a grandmother of four and the author of the book "Bringing our Grandchildren to God," explains that the spiritual role of grandparents in the family takes its roots from the Old Testament directive "to remember and relive the events that occurred as God acted out his covenant with the Hebrew people."
Likewise, grandparents are in a unique position to share the many ways God has been present throughout the generations of their own family.
"Every time a grandchild is born, a grandparent is reborn," Boucher says. "Something spiritual happens. Grandparents become keenly aware of the connection between those who have gone before us and all those who come after us. On some level, we recognize God's universal call to new life and the part we have played in welcoming new life into our families."
Boucher explains that the passionate desire of grandparents to pass along their Catholic faith to their grandchildren is a gift from God. "This desire is at the heart of God's call to spiritual grandparenting," she says.
But Boucher also admits that increasing numbers of grandparents feel frustrated because their children do not go to Mass and their grandchildren are being raised without a strong sense of faith. She tells grandparents not to blame themselves.
"It is not your fault," she says. "God loves each member of your family. Jesus has been sent as redeemer and savior of each child and of each family. The waters of baptism and the strength of God's Spirit persist in the souls of each one of us."
Sometimes, the only thing grandparents can do in these cases is to take a position of "watchful prayer."
"We can be like Zebedee's wife who brought her two sons before Jesus and asked if they could sit next to him in heaven [see Mt 20:20-24]," she says. "If you read the story carefully, Jesus did not answer her. He turned to the two sons instead, and she had to pay attention to what Jesus was doing with them."
Power of prayer
Boucher advises grandparents to pray with family photos as a way of lifting up children and grandchildren to the Lord. She asks grandparents to recall the many times they lifted their children and grandchildren.
"So, lift them up one more time in prayer," she says. "Then put them into Jesus' arms."
While praying with family photos, grandparents can also recall family stories, and look for the ways that God was present in the events that are captured in the photographs.
"Share these stories with extended family whenever possible," Boucher advises. "Write them down in preparation for the day when someone will ask about family history. Better yet, recruit a grandchild to record stories in a video."
For grandparents who live far from their grandchildren, she suggests finding ways to keep in touch. Frequent telephone calls are important. Kids love to receive handwritten letters and cards. You can also share your wisdom, your insights, and your faith through e-mail, instant messages, text messages, blogs and family Web pages.
A holy example
Boucher and her husband, John, are constantly on the lookout for unique ways to share faith with their grandchildren. "We do this by choosing activities that promote learning, spiritual growth, an appreciation for nature and a capacity for solitude," she says.
Nature walks are a favorite activity that offer a spontaneous setting for talking about the wonders of God and creation.
The Bouchers also introduce into their grandchildren's vocabularies "one-liners from liturgy," such as "Peace be with you," "Thanks be to God," or "Lord have mercy."
"As spiritual grandparents, we can go beyond entertainment as a goal for our activities and visits," Boucher says.
Teaching children spiritual songs and singing together is another favorite activity. They like to take their grandchildren on tours of churches. They have developed their own religious rituals for Christmas and Easter.
Boucher told OSV she and her husband are inspired by this passage from Ephesians: "For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (3:14-19).
Returning the favor
Boucher has discovered that grandchildren can share their faith with grandparents, too. During a recent visit, she gave her 5-year-old granddaughter blue rosary beads.
"What she liked best about the rosary was the crucifix, which is interesting because she was baptized on the feast of the Holy Cross," Boucher recalled. "We talked about how Jesus died and rose on Easter. She had lots of questions, but was satisfied with the answers enough to wear the rosary for several days."
Two days later, the family received the sad news that a close relative had died. "As I cried on my daughter's shoulder, I felt a hand tugging on my sleeve," Boucher recalled. "Memere, look at me!" her granddaughter insisted. Then the little girl lifted up the cross on the rosary and said, "Memere, did you forget about Jesus?"
Could there be any better testimonial than this to the power of grandparents passing along their faith?
Lorene Hanley Duquin writes from New York.
Bishop John McRaith always acknowledges grandparents when he celebrates the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky. He recognizes the wisdom grandparents have gained throughout the years. He encourages them to continue to pass their Catholic faith down to their grandchildren.