From time to time, since I was first ordained as a priest, I have been asked to move from one parish or pastoral situation to another. There has always been a certain amount of sadness in saying goodbye to people but, over the years, some of those relationships have become real friendships, and have remained strong, even though we didn’t see one another so often.
The Letter to Philemon is the shortest book of the New Testament and it gives us some insight into a relationship just like that. Philemon was a wealthy man who became a Christian, during one of the missionary journeys of Saint Paul. He became a friend and supporter of Paul and they remained close, even after Paul moved on to preach the Gospel elsewhere. When Paul was a prisoner in Rome, one of the slaves of Philemon, Onesimus, turned up in the city. He had run away from his master and it seems that Paul welcomed him. In our second reading today, Paul describes Onesimus as “a dear child of mine, whose father I became, while wearing these chains”. It seems that Paul must have Baptised Onesimus and sees himself now as his father in faith.
In the Letter to Philemon, it is very clear that Onesimus was a source of practical support to Paul, while he was under house arrest. Paul’s appreciation of Onesimus goes far beyond the fact that he was useful. He values Onesimus as a fellow Christian and as someone who reminds him of his old friend Philemon in Colossae. When he sends Onesimus back to Philemon, he asks Philemon to welcome him “no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother in Christ”. It might seems strange to us that Saint Paul doesn’t seem to condemn slavery, or to criticise Philemon for having slaves. I think Paul probably realised that, before you can change social structures, you have to change people’s hearts. So he begins by inviting Philemon to enter into a new kind of relationship with Onesimus. He knew that if Philemon once recognised Onesimus as a dear brother in Christ, things would inevitably begin to change.
You might say to me: “that’s an interesting story”. You can imagine the emotions that come to the surface when Philemon begins to realise the implications of what Saint Paul is saying to him. But what has that got to do with us today? Slavery has been abolished. Do these words of Saint Paul have anything to say to grandparents?
Let me begin by saying that slavery may have been abolished but it is not gone away. Human trafficking is a reality in our society and many migrants workers are valued more for what they can do than for who they are. It doesn’t just happen to migrants either. Depending in the kind of relationships that operate in the workplace, people can find that they are used and then disposed of when they are no longer required.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that there are different way of thinking about friendship. One way is to say: “you are my friend, because you can do something for me”, but then, as soon as you can no longer do anything for me, then you are no longer my friend. Authentic friendship, he suggested, is when we see the goodness in someone and love them for who they are. It is when we want what is good for them, rather than just looking for what is in it for ourselves.
Unfortunately, there is – and there always has been – a tendency in society to value people according to their usefulness, rather than for who they are as unique human beings, or indeed, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. If you ask yourself who is most likely to be negatively affected by that tendency, it is surely those who are not directly involved in the production of wealth; the children, the elderly and those who are sick. They are more easily regarded as a burden.
Our society has rightly been criticised for the way that we treated unwanted or “inconvenient” children in the past. The circumstances may have changed, but the attitude has not really changed that much. At a time when there is far more focus on wanted children, and on children who are wanted almost at any cost, we have just found new and more permanent ways to dispose of children who are not wanted or who don’t measure up to our expectations.
Pope Francis, in his letter of encouragement on the Joy of Love wrote:
“Our elderly are men and women, fathers and mothers, who came before us on our own road, in our own house, in our daily battle for a worthy life … How I would like a Church that challenges the throwaway culture by the over-flowing joy of a new between young and old.” He has spoken on many occasions in recent years about the sadness and the emptiness of a society that would put the elderly to one side. “A society that has no room for the elderly or discards them because they create problems, has a deadly virus”… “it is torn from its roots”.
In recent times, of course, we have discovered the contribution that grandparents can make to the economy. At a time when the cost of housing is very high and people travel long distances to work the availability of lively, mobile and energetic grandparents makes it easier for hard-pressed mothers and fathers to take their place in the work force. Even if this means that children see less of their parents, it has certainly given rise to the possibility of rich relationships between children and their grandparents. Even in this situation, however, there is the risk at times that the elderly can be valued more for what they can do than for who they are. We need, as a society, to remember that being a grandparent is primarily a relationship, not just a function, and that it shouldn’t become a burden.
Just as it was with slavery in the first century, so it is today with the economic structures of our own society. Some people have influence on the global economy. For most of us, however, our contribution to the building of a better world depends on how we relate with one another in our families and in our local communities. It depends on how, through those relationships, we help to form attitudes of love and care. Just as Saint Paul built up a friendship with Philemon and helped him to see Onesimus in a different light, so I think that you grandparents today can support your grandchildren in developing positive attitudes which they will not pick up from social media. In your conversations with them, you can help them to value themselves for who they are and not simply for what they have or even what they achieve. You can help them to value their parents for who they are and not simply for what they provide. In the process, of course, you will also help them to see yourself for who you truly are.
Pope Francis has also spoken a lot about how children often hear the good news of the Gospel from their grandparents and how it is often grandparents who teach their grandchildren to pray. I have met young adults whose faith was not nourished by their parents, but who greatly value that wonderful gift that they received from their grandparents if being introduced to Jesus and to the life of the faith community.
I have been very conscious in recent years, as I have celebrated Confirmation, how important grandparents are to children. It would be great if you could take an interest in what they are learning about their faith at school. I know that children love it when grandparents tell stories from the past. I want to encourage you also to share the stories of your own faith; not just your faith now, but your faith when you were their age. Let them see that you have had the same questions as they have. Help them to see how you are still nourished by the Eucharist. Help them to see how the gifts of the Holy Spirit still play a part in your own life today. Our first reading today poses the question: “who can know the mind of God?” So you may never know what good things God has in store for your grandchildren or how God is working through you to bring those plans to fruitfulness.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin. This homily was preached at Mass yesterday, The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Knock, Co Mayo, in the Archdiocese of Tuam.
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