Redefining the role of grandparents

Catherine Wiley is a very youthful Irish lady, the mother of four children and grandmother of 10 grandchildren. She holds degrees in psychology and counselling from Westminster University. And to her, we owe the Catholic Grandparents Association, founded in 2009 and present today in 39 countries. 

“[O]ur children and grandchildren have only heard negativity about our Church for decades,” Wiley said. “They have totally missed the joy of the Gospel. They are blinded by the hostility of the media. They do not know who Jesus is. And it is also challenging that sometimes grandchildren will go to their grandparents before going to their parents.”

Anyone can join the association to support each other. It is a private institute of faithful who work within family and marriage organizations in churches.

“Although we are a lay organization,” Wiley explains, “we work hand, heart and mind with the Church. All that happens in a family has a big impact on them, on their own lives, emotions, health and finances, often being the ‘family bank.’ So, they need to help each other.”

During the first three days of the recent World Meeting of Families held in Dublin, Ireland (Aug. 21-26), and before the arrival of Pope Francis in Ireland to conclude the event, Wiley welcomed visitors to the association’s stand, responded to requests for information, distributed leaflets and above all the prayer written by Pope Benedict XVI for all the grandparents of the world.

“At the World Meeting of Families, the moment people see us, the Grandparents Association, they normally can’t help but learn more.”

Wiley also gave a talk at one of the roundtables of the meeting calendar, entitled “Handing Down the Faith between the Generations: The Role of Grandparents,” which she addressed in her interview with Our Sunday Visitor:

Our Sunday Visitor: Why was there a meeting dedicated to grandparents at the World Meeting of Families?

Catherine Wiley: Because grandparents were never, ever so important and critical in the history of the Church as today. The strength of their faith that keeps families together, binds them together with trust, hope and love.

OSV: What should be their proper place in a family?

Wiley: At the heart of the family. Their vocation is rooted in love. Grandparents are there to support parents. Parents are the primary supporters of their family, yes, but nowadays parents are very busy, working, the economy, the stresses of everyday life. ...

Therefore, grandparents have more opportunities than ever for helping out the family, and during that time, passing on the Faith.

OSV: Are you a grandparent?

Wiley: I have 10 beautiful grandchildren, ages from 24 down to 12, very, very different, just like your children are different and your grandchildren and their parents, too. So, as a grandparent, you have to be very careful sometimes to not be seen as favoring one over the other, because they are on the lookout for that all the time. It is not that easy to be a grandparent of integrity in this day and age because many of my grandchildren have fallen away from the Faith, or are very lukewarm about the Faith. So, it’s the art of being a grandparent, knowing when to love, when to give, when to be there, when not to say anything, to be sensitive, to be unobtrusive. ... It’s an art!

OSV: Is there a moment that comes to mind?

The role of grandparents is more important than ever in the structure of the family. Shutterstock

Wiley: Oh yes, so funny! Some of my grandchildren are not baptized so when they come home to me, we always pray: grace before meals, blessings before sleep, going to Mass. I call these “the non-negotiables.” So, we were saying grace as usual, no matter who is sitting at the table, but Thomas, 15-years-old, who I adore, was not joining in. I said, “Tom, you are not saying grace.” And he, “I am an atheist!” I said, “Really? Well, I am just delighted! But, when you are with me, you are a Catholic. Now say grace!”

OSV: Pope Francis often tells young people and children to speak to grandparents. Why do you think he does so?

Wiley: Because he is wise enough to appreciate the value of grandparents. He too has been so influenced by both his grandfather and especially his grandmother, Rosa, who he said prayed for him every day and night. Also, Pope Benedict XVI for me was also the “grandparent pope.”

OSV: Yes? Why?

Wiley: In 2008, Benedict wrote the “prayer for grandparents” that inspired the founding of the association. Before that, every year we went on a “grandparent’s pilgrimage” to Walsingham, in England, and to Knock, Ireland. Then, I wrote Pope Benedict seven letters.

Eventually I went to the Vatican, knocked on the door, and they thought, “This woman is not going away.” Eventually when he wrote the prayer to help grandparents, that has been something meaningful, it showed the love he has for grandparents.

OSV: Then the association was officially launched in 2009.

Wiley: When I became a grandparent myself, I honestly had no idea how difficult it would be.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

I had been told: “When you are a grandparent, it is fantastic. You can love and spoil the children and give them back in the evening.” But that was not my experience. I couldn’t give them back in the evening as we had divorce and other issues in the family. We became essential to the care of our grandchildren.

I looked around and realized that there was no prayer that answered the need that I was feeling. ... Benedict is so blessed. It is the most beautiful prayer. He spells out the love, honor and respect for grandparents. That is what we need.

Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.