Homily of Bishop Brendan Leahy for the 2015 National Pilgrimage of the Catholic Grandparents Association

14 Sep 2015

Over the past two years, many of us have come to know one particular grandmother that we didn’t know before. Her name is Rosa. And we’ve heard about her because she is Pope Francis’ grandmother and he speaks a lot about her. He is so grateful to her. “I loved my grandmother” he says.

She was a woman who talked to him and his siblings about Jesus. She taught them the Catechism. He recalls how on the evening of Good Friday she would take them to the candlelight procession, and at the end of this procession, pointing to the image of the Crucified Christ, she would say to them: “Look, he is dead, but tomorrow he will rise”. Pope Francis comments, “this was how I received my first Christian proclamation, from this very woman, from my grandmother!”

On another occasion, in talking to a group from the Salvation Army, Pope Francis shared an experience of how as a four-year-old boy he was walking with his grandmother when he saw two Salvation Army women dressed in their uniform and a bonnet that they wore a that time. The boy, Jorge, asked his grandmother if they were nuns or sisters and she replied: “No, they are Protestants – but they are good.” “This,” continued Pope Francis, “was the first sermon ever I heard about ecumenism – and [it] has influenced me in my ecumenical journey.”

From what he says about his grandmother Rosa, we’re not surprised that Pope Francis has a great regard for grandparents. I think he was quite chuffed earlier this year during his visit to the Philippines because they called him “Lolo,” meaning “Grandpa Francis.” I’m sure he’s delighted to know so many grandparents are here today at this wonderful event organised by the Catholic Grandparents Association.

Pope Francis speaks of how beautiful it is to see the elderly encourage and manage to convey to young people the meaning of faith and life! For him, this is really the mission of grandparents, the vocation of the elderly. As he puts it, “The words of grandparents have something special for the young. And they know it”.

In their own unique way, grandparents can be a wise presence of Jesus for their grandchildren. I want to suggest that today’s readings provide us with ways they do this.

  • Jesus prepared his disciples for the future when they were afraid of the Cross. Grandparents who have lived many years of life can encourage fearful young people not to be afraid of the future. So often, the world around them promotes cults of happiness, success and prize-winning but when they look at the world as it is, when they see the difficulties encountered in family life, when they are faced with the insecurity and crash that so many experienced in recent years, it’s easy for young people to be afraid. Fear, after all, is also a deep sentiment in us because of original sin. Mental health issues are not uncommon today among young people. As we see in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples were afraid of the future. So he prepared them by encouraging them not to think simply in limited human terms, but rather to try and tune into God’s logic, God’s way of seeing things. Repeating Jesus in their lives, grandparents say to their grandchildren, “Look to God not to yourselves. Trust him. Follow him, even when adversity, failure and disappointments come your way.” Some of you may have seen this summer the film Inside Out. It tells the story of a crisis in the life of an 11-year-old girl. The film’s message is that moments of sadness and disappointment are part of life. Catholic grandparents can witness to their children and grandchildren that there is a higher power, God, whose loving plan for us is always greater than our measurements.
  • We know that a key sentence from Jesus’ lips was: “For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Young people can often be given the message to be in love with themselves and their own projects. But grandparents can teach them that it is certainly good to be ambitious and want to do well but it is important also not to want to control life simply on their terms, that it is in putting ourselves aside in order to love in the way the Gospel teaches that we find fulfilment, that we really life to the full when, as our Second Reading today puts it, we combine faith and good works together. At this time in Ireland, the refugee crisis is offering us new opportunities to lay down our lives in service of our sisters and brothers who are Christ for us.
  • Jesus’ whole life was prayer. He followed the way of the Cross and coped with adversity because he prayed to his Father in heaven. Grandfathers and grandmothers give the great example of the importance of prayer in time of difficulty. I was struck recently by a woman recalling when she was young her grandfather brought her into a small church in the village where they went on holidays. She can remember looking at him as he stood there in prayer. Ahead of him was the altar with the statue of St. Joseph to one said, and the statue of Mary to the other. Her comment struck me: “it was the first time I realised that prayer must be important”. It is interesting that Pope Francis says that he carries in his breviary the copy of a prayer his grandmother Rosa gave him and that he often reads it.
  • These are a few ways that Catholic grandparents are a presence of Jesus to their children and grandchildren – witnessing and teaching them not to be afraid of the future, to lay down their lives in service of others and to pray. In and through their relationship with their grandchildren, grandparents are ultimately helping their loved ones answer the question Jesus asked his disciples in the Gospel today: who do you say I am? Deep down, Jesus addresses that question to everyone in the depths of their heart: “who do you say I am?” “Where am I in your life?” Through their wise counsel, authentic witness and loving and respectful proclamation, Grandparents can help children to begin to formulate their personal response to that question. It’s important to do your part. Then hand it over to God. Because, let’s remember, that response to Jesus is a life-long project!

As I draw to a conclusion, I would like to let you know that the Bishops of Ireland have introduced a new programme of Religious Education/ catechesis in primary schools. It is a golden opportunity for all of us in the Church – parents, grandparents, bishops and priests, parish communities, teachers, consecrated laymen and women – to revise our commitment to handing on the faith to children. Grandparents certainly have a key role. For the new programme to be fruitful, it will need the lively involvement of parents and the parish. The workbook that children can bring home has pages in it for parents (and why not grandparents too) to review together with the children what is going on in class. It’s a chance to open a conversation, wonder and think together with children about the mysteries of life and faith. This year we are starting with junior and senior infants.

I should also mention that grandparents can also help other grandparents in their important role. We have wonderful resources available – the Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults and the Youcat written with modern graphics suitable for younger generations. It might be an idea to set up study groups of these texts. I know there are others who have studied them and would be willing to lead groups – perhaps those attending morning Mass might be willing to meet for 10 minutes once a week after Mass for an input on some element of the faith. I’m sure there are other ideas that might occur to you too.

But let’s give the final word to Rosa, Pope Francis’ grandmother. It’s moving to hear him say of her: “She loved me so much! She was a saint who suffered much, also spiritually, and yet always went forward with courage.” I’ve no doubt the grandparents here love their grandchildren greatly. And no doubt too, many of you here suffer, also spiritually, perhaps regretting deficiencies that you see in the transmission of faith. But let’s take heart from the impact of one grandmother on a future Pope! Let’s entrust ourselves to Mary, Jesus’ mother who must have often heard her speak of his grandparents. And let’s pray that the grandchildren represented in you here today will be able to say about you in years to come what Pope Francis says of his grandmother: “they loved me so much; they were saints who suffered, also spiritually and yet they always kept going with courage”.

Notes to Editors:

  • This homily was delivered by Bishop Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick at the 9th National Pilgrimage of the Catholic Grandparents Association, which took place yesterday, Sunday 13 September 2015, at Knock Shrine.

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