Homily by Bishop John Fleming, Bishop of Killala, at the Grandparents’ Pilgrimage to Knock 2008
RTÉ has a slogan which it is playing on radio these days. It says “RTÉ; broadcasting pictures to millions of imaginations.” Broadcasting pictures to millions of imaginations is, I believe, a good description of what grandparents do in family life, and, in particular, in the handing on of the faith from one generation to the next. I well remember my own grandmother taking me around the world in eighty days through the pages of the book written by Jules Verne, as she encouraged me to open my mind to the adventures of Phileas Fogg and made me wonder whether or not he would make the journey on time. This began in me a lifelong love of books and those pictures sparked my young imagination.
But her influence was not confined to books and stories. She also handed on to me, without words and without direction, something of her deep faith. To this day, for example, I often think of her visits to our farm on every first Thursday of the month, when my parents took her to Limerick City to Confession before coming to spend the night with us so that she could go to Mass on the First Friday.
Through spending time with your grandchildren, therefore, you are stimulating their young imaginations and you are also creating memories of you which will endure through their entire lifetime. In particular, these memories of your silent witness to prayer and to faith in God will stay with them, even if they drift from the faith and from the Church at times in their lives.
Storytelling is one of the most important aspects of the Jewish religion. Jews believe that by telling the story of God’s love for his people they are able to hand on the faith from one generation to the next.
In a recent Thought for the Day, Jonathan Sacks, the Jewish Chief Rabbi in England, was asked about the spirit of endurance which seems part of the Jewish soul and he concluded that it was the Passover which gave to Judaism its particular strength. He said “We never forgot the story. We taught it to our children and we always told the story in such a way as to end on a note of hope. This year we are slaves. Next year we will be free. Passover kept hope alive and hope kept the Jewish people alive”.
In our Catholic tradition we should be able to say the same. To paraphrase Jonathan Sacks, we should be able to say of ourselves: “We never forgot the story. We taught it to our children and we always told the story in such a way as to end on a note of hope. This year we may be slaves. Next year we will be free.”
In our modern, sophisticated, changed Ireland, I sometimes feel that we in the Catholic Church are in danger, in fact, of forgetting the story, of not teaching it effectively to our children and, as a consequence, we run the risk not only of abandoning hope but also of undermining our ability to endure as well.
The story is simple and it has been told and retold throughout salvation history. In essence, the story is the message that God is love and that God loves us, His creatures, always and for ever. The narrative of the ways in which He does this and has done this throughout history is long and varied. The story has many chapters, takes many forms and can be as long or as short as the story teller wants to make it. The important thing for all of us is that we know and are aware of the story, that we feel the compulsion to share it and that we derive from it the strength we need in our lives.
In today’s world, grandparents are the great storytellers. You are the ones who know the past from which we come and the Christian faith which we have inherited. You are the ones who have accumulated over all the years, mature human and spiritual experience. You are the privileged members of the family who can share your wisdom with your grandchildren, without feeling the need to preach at them because, in the long run, you know that the front line of responsibility for them does not lie with you but with your children, their parents.
The Church in Ireland is currently marking a “Year of Vocation”. Each month we focus on a different theme of vocation, for example: the vocation to marriage, to the single life, to priesthood etc. Today, our focus is on your vocation as grandparents and our vocation as grandchildren. We recognize you as the deeply loved and irreplaceable members of our families. We rely on your love and the support of your prayers for us. We welcome and appreciate the time you spend with us and we hope that, in some way, our lives will repay something of the great investment of love which you have made in us. In particular, we pray that your prayers will help us find our Christian vocation in the Church which you love.
Let me end with part of the Prayer which the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, dedicated to grandparents and wrote for this pilgrimage:
“Mary, Mother of all the living, keep grandparents constantly in your care, accompany them on their earthly pilgrimage and by your prayers, grant that all families may one day be reunited in our heavenly homeland, where you await all humanity for the great embrace of life without end. Amen.
Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 1727678)
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer (087 2337797)