5 goals for Catholic grandparents

When a son or daughter becomes a parent, something marvelous happens to us. We become grandparents! The ancient blessing from Psalm 128:5-6 is fulfilled for us: “May you ... live to see your children’s children.” A new life wraps itself around our hearts, our eyes fill with tears of joy, and we are blessed in a most amazing way!

Although parents are the most important teachers in a child’s life, grandparents also have a role to play. Pope Francis tells us in Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”): “Very often it is grandparents who ensure that the most important values are passed down to their grandchildren, and many people can testify that they owe their initiation into the Christian life to their grandparents. Their words, their affection, or simply their presence help children to realize that history did not begin with them, that they are now part of an age-old pilgrimage and that they need to respect all that came before them” (No. 192).

Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”): “An authentic faith ... always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it” (No. 183). In our relationship with our grandchildren, we have a chance to show just how authentic our faith is. We can transmit our values. We can work to make their lives just a little better. We can make a difference. Let us not miss this precious opportunity.

With that in mind, here are five goals we might want to consider.

Susan M. Erschen is the author of the new book “God’s Guide for Grandparents” (OSV, $14.95). She writes from Missouri.

1. Teach them compassion

Compassion is a cornerstone of our faith. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus calls us to be compassionate. In the story of the Judgment of the Nations (Mt 25:31-46), those who fed the hungry and gave drink to the thirsty are the ones invited by God to enter the kingdom. Compassion separated the sheep from the goats. The more we can show our grandchildren how to be compassionate, the more we will lead them closer to God.

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My pastor has a good formula for learning compassion. He regularly encourages us to remember the three Ds. Those who are different from us. Those who are distant from us. And those who are difficult for us to love. If we can pray for these three kinds of people, we will learn to be more compassionate to them. An amazing thing happens when we pray for someone. We begin to see them not through our eyes of judgment, but through God’s eyes of mercy. Teaching our grandchildren to pray for anyone they do not like or do not understand can help them become more sensitive and caring.

Another way to nurture compassion is to talk about feelings. When we think about how the other person might feel, we are more apt to be kind and gentle toward them. Thus, it is good to help our grandchildren become more aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others.

As grandchildren get a little older, it is good to make them aware of suffering in a way that is appropriate to their age. Exposing young children to dangerous or frightening situations is not a good idea. But as they get older, they should know many people live with great pain, sadness and need. They should know people are homeless because of natural disasters. They should know some people must leave one country and search for a new home. They should know some children are too poor to ever receive Christmas or birthday gifts. They can learn at a very early age to pray for all these people.

Within our own families and neighborhoods, God gives all of us opportunities to show compassion. Maybe it is cooking a meal for a family in need. Maybe it is visiting an elderly or sick friend. Maybe it is buying Christmas gifts for needy children. Whenever God places these needs for compassion in our path, we should consider whether we could involve our grandchildren in meeting the need. Let us strive to help them know the warm glow we feel when we are compassionate.

2. Be ready to serve

In today’s busy world, it seems most grandparents serve the young families in some way. With more two-career families, round-the-clock work schedules and almost constant electronic connection to the workplace, young parents often need their own parents to help with childcare and scheduling conflicts. Everywhere we go, we see grandparents tending their children’s children. They are at the grocery store, the playground, the library, restaurants and morning Mass.

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Gone are the days when grandparents could say: “I raised my children. I am not doing it again.” Today’s families need our support. If we want to spend quality time with our grandchildren, it often involves also caring for them. Grandfathers and grandmothers are now “stay-at-home” grandparents. Many retired grandparents spend one or more days a week caring for their grandchildren.

Even out-of-town grandparents are asked to give service. They may use vacation time to care for their grandchildren so the parents can go on a business trip or have a quiet weekend away.

This service to the youngest in our families is a way to carry out the corporal works of mercy. We feed them. We may help dress them. We stay with them when they are too sick for school or day care. And although Jesus did not cite transportation as a work of mercy, in today’s world it could be added to the list. Grandparents often are called upon to drive grandchildren to after-school activities, doctor appointments or field trips.

During his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis told us: “Your care for one another is care for Jesus himself.” What a blessing it is for us to care for Jesus by caring for our grandchildren.

We may think we do not have enough time to give this service, but that is rarely true. God gives each of us the time we need to do the work he has planned for us. However, we may need to rearrange our priorities. This could require prayer and discernment. Grandparents may have to consider adjusting their own work or personal schedules so they have time to give service to their grandchildren.

Giving up our own plans to help with grandchildren can be a sacrifice. That’s OK. Sacrifice is good. The word sacrifice means “to make holy.” We can make our lives holier by serving our families.

Jesus taught us: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35). For some grandparents, it is quite possible the ones God calls us to serve are our own grandchildren and their families. Let us be ready to draw closer to our grandchildren by helping to care for them as needed.

3. Show them love of nature

It is no secret that Pope Francis has made love of nature and care of the environment a priority for every Christian. Yet, it is not easy to love or care for something you do not know. Today, many children do not know nature. They often spend long hours in day care facilities and classrooms. Their free time may be spent in front of an electronic screen of some type. For all these reasons, exposing our grandchildren to the wonder and awe of God’s creation might be a most important goal for grandparents. Pope Francis tells us in Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”): “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal and deprived of physical contact with nature” (No. 44). Let us take our grandchildren outside.

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One of my grandchildren’s favorite activities is a night walk. We carry flashlights and look at the moon and the stars. On daytime walks, we stop often to admire the details on a butterfly, pick up a pretty rock or run through the long tendrils of a weeping willow. We have stopped to watch a spider spin a web or a baby snake slither off the path. One grandmother I know put up bird feeders in her yard and bought picture books to help her grandchildren identify the birds that visit.

When we expose our grandchildren to nature, we expose them to God. The 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire once said: “I cannot imagine how the clockwork of the universe can exist without a clockmaker.” Pope Francis also reminds us there is a divine artist who has crafted the beauty of each new season. The Holy Father wrote in Laudato Si’: “Creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father” (No. 76).

What a beautiful image Francis paints of God reaching out his mighty hand to offer us a pretty tulip, a perfect snowflake or a dawn that looks like — as my granddaughter once said — it is swirled with the colors of a lollipop. The more we can teach our grandchildren to appreciate these wonders, the greater the chance they will want to preserve them.

In his 2015 address on the White House lawn, Pope Francis pleaded with us: “When it comes to the care of our ‘common home’ we are living at a critical moment in history. We still have time to make the changes needed.”

Certainly, we do not want our grandchildren to raise their own children in a world that has become an industrial wasteland. Let us actively work to teach them to love and care for all of God’s creation.

A Grandparent's Prayer
Dearest God,

4. Respect their parents' wishes

One of the hardest jobs for a grandparent might be to keep our mouths shut. Today’s world is vastly different from the world in which we raised our children. This presents current parents with challenges we did not face. Today’s parents need to determine how to carry their beloved child through a raging sea of new technologies, advanced medical research, alarming social trends and demanding expectations. Our advice may not always be up-to-date or wanted. It is important that, as grandparents, we respect the decisions the parents make for their children — even if we do not always understand or agree with those decisions.

Young parents must make their own rules based on new research and information. This is good. This is progress. It has been that way since the beginning of time. Jesus encouraged this. He taught: “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate’” (Mt 19:4-6).

For a husband or wife to leave his or her parents and cling to a spouse may also mean leaving behind some of their own parents’ traditions, expectations or philosophies. This can be painful for everyone. Yet, unless the very life of the grandchild is in danger, grandparents must respect the wishes of the new family. We must not separate the man and wife because of our own wishes.

Years ago, in a course on the theology of marriage, my professor said the most important thing a parent can do for his or her child is to love his or her spouse. Pope Francis emphasizes this by telling spouses: “It is irresponsible to disparage the other parent as a means of winning a child’s affection, or out of revenge or self-justification. Doing so will affect the child’s interior tranquility and cause wounds hard to heal” (Amoris Laetitia, No. 245). If this is the pope’s advice for parents, it certainly would apply to grandparents, too. For the sake of the children, we must honor their parents in every way possible. Children need to know that their parents are both wise and lovable.

This leads us to the Fourth Commandment. “Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you” (Ex 20:12). Teaching our grandchildren this commandment is a great way to pass our faith on to them. However, it will not be enough to just tell them, “Do what your mommy and daddy tell you.” We, too, must do what their mommy and daddy wish. Giving our grandchildren the idea it is OK to disobey is not OK at all. Let us always honor the parents who have blessed us with our dear grandchildren.

5. Help them be content

Contentment is possibly one of the best feelings in the world. It wraps us in peace, gratitude and joy. It is a taste of heaven here on earth. It is a gift we surely want to give our grandchildren.

A secret for contentment can be found in Psalm 23. Its well-known first verse says: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.” Older versions of the Psalm often say: “I shall not want.” We hold on to this line as a promise from God. We trust God will lead us someday to a place of perfect peace, harmony and contentment. However, maybe we would be more content right now if we took the words “I shall not want” as a command rather than just a promise. Wanting too much almost always leads to discontent.

It is not easy to stop wanting. The advertising industry specializes in making us want things we do not need. Our economy thrives on us being dissatisfied with what we have. Instead of being grateful for the blessings God has given us, we often dwell on the things we still want.

Reflections on Hope
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Susan M. Erschen, author of this In Focus, has written “God’s Guide for Grandparents” (OSV, $14.95), in which she offers thoughts and reflections on how grandparents can serve their grandchildren. These reflections come from the end of the chapter on modeling hope. For more information on the book, or to order, visit osvcatholicbookstore.com.

Adam and Eve lost paradise because they wanted more than they had. Nothing has ever been perfect since then. Having more will not make us happier. If we can accept this in our own lives, we will be able to steer our grandchildren away from the endless material temptations that can rob them of contentment.

One lesson to teach our grandchildren is the difference between need and want. Grandchildren will often tell us they need something — a new toy, a snack or an adventure. Our first question for them should be: “Do you need it or do you want it?” Most of us need very little. But we have an endless list of wants. Just realizing something is a want and not a need might help us and our grandchildren be more content.

We can also teach them how to admire something without possessing it. Our commercial society has turned almost every experience into an opportunity to buy something. We will be doing our grandchildren a favor if we can help them realize they do not need to get some new possession in order to have had a great time. Fun memories should be cherished more than souvenirs. The world is not meant to be a shopping mall. We should look at it more as a museum. Let us admire without hoping to have all we see.

In the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus tells us endless wanting and discontent can destroy our spiritual lives. “The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit” (Mt 13:22). When we help our grandchildren be content with what they have, we are setting the stage for them to follow the Gospel more fully. They will be more generous when they are not always wanting more for themselves. They will be more compassionate when they are not envious. And they will be more joyful when they realize how much God has already blessed them. Let us give them this gift of contentment. It is worth more than anything we could buy in any store.

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