Catholic News Service
“A plant without roots does not grow.” Pope Francis was thinking of grandparents when he made that statement recently in Tbilisi, capital of the country of Georgia.
In the pope’s lofty, inspiring view, grandparents fulfill a necessary role in families by linking generations and making grandchildren aware — through “their words, their affection or simply their presence” —that “history did not begin with them.” He spoke of this in “The Joy of Love,” his 2016 apostolic exhortation on the family.
Grandparents represent a family’s memory, while helping orient the family toward its future. That is the view of Pope Francis, who may be today’s leading proponent on the world stage of grandparenthood’s virtues.
I suspect most grandparents want to fulfill the role described to them by the pope. They willingly would serve their family as a font of memories that matter. Their question, though, is how and when to do this.
I confess I am no grandparenthood expert. But I am an experienced grandfather, with grandchildren ranging in age from 2 to nearly 15.
That age range itself reveals one of grandparenthood’s complexities. Many grandparents find themselves called, in virtually one and the same moment, to devote caring attention to children whose delight it is to play in the age-old ways of toddlers and to teens who want little more than to immerse themselves in iPods and electronic games.
Some grandchildren love school; others, not so much. Some might spend every waking moment outdoors if they could; others much prefer the indoors.
What are grandparents to do? Planning a family activity involving a number of grandchildren can tax the imagination.
But I am amazed, I confess, by how many children’s movies I have seen over the past decade! I should also confess that like millions of 21st-century grandparents I am grateful when an older grandchild comes to my rescue after my smartphone or laptop misbehaves.
If no two grandchildren are alike, neither are any two grandparents. There really is no grandparenthood rulebook or checklist to follow.
Upon first becoming grandparents, I am certain that many follow the example set long ago by their own parents.
Many, I also am certain, are astonished to discover how much they love their grandchildren. Exactly where this love should lead is a grandparent’s dilemma.
It is not uncommon in our highly mobile culture for grandparents to live far away from grandchildren. I knew of one new grandmother who for months resolved this situation by driving several hundred miles each way almost every weekend to spend time with her newborn grandchild.
Other grandparents are thankful in the internet age for a program like Skype that allows them at least to “see” children and grandchildren via long-distance visits.
The fabric of grandparenthood is woven of numerous diverse strands. Some become grandparents at a quite young age. Others, with children marrying at later ages nowadays, may not feel particularly young when their first grandchildren arrive.
Some grandparents are employed full time. Others are limited in their activities by health or income issues.
Countless grandparents in varying walks of life share in rearing grandchildren by taking care of them one or two days a week or even daily while a parent goes to work. Could society get along without them?
Yes, grandparents come in all sizes and shapes, so to speak.
The untold story about grandparents involves their large role as sources of stability within their larger family, even financial stability. As the final report of the October 2015 assembly in Rome of the world Synod of Bishops observed:
“Grandparents frequently collaborate with their sons and daughters in economic matters, the upbringing of their children and the transmission of the faith to their grandchildren.”
Among the best-known grandparents of our time, though she was not actually “of our time,” is Pope Francis’ paternal grandmother, Rosa. He recalled her on Pentecost eve in 2013 as “a woman who explained to us, who talked to us about Jesus, who taught us the catechism.” She “loved me so much,” he said.
The story of his family involved growing up in a setting where “faith was lived in a simple, practical way,” Pope Francis said.
Our era is “the time of grandparents,” he believes. He said when addressing participants in the Diocese of Rome’s 2016 pastoral conference, “Let our grandparents share and tell us their dreams so that we can have prophecies for the future.”
Raising children always is a work in progress. So grandparents, like parents, sometimes struggle along when it comes to knowing how to serve as good models of adulthood and faith for a family’s newest generation.
Grandparents, of course, are not their grandchildren’s parents. Usually this is good news, suggesting to grandparents that they have entered a rewarding, new and different stage in life.
One hears frequently that children know on some inner and deep level whether they truly are loved by those around them. I confess that I only hope and pray, like other grandparents, that this is true.