Persons, places and things: Let’s talk about grandparents – blood relatives or not


By Barb Arland-Fye


Pope Francis describes his “strongest childhood memory” as “life shared between my parents’ house and my grandparents’ house.” He enjoyed an especially close relationship with his paternal grandmother, Rosa, who taught him to pray the rosary and introduced him to the saints, biographer Austin Ivereigh says in “The Great Reformer,” published in 2014.

No wonder the Holy Father established the fourth Sunday in July as World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, which this year is July 23. Three days later, on July 26, the Church celebrates the feast day of Ss. Joachim and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus.

In the United States, however, the U.S. bishops transferred the celebration to the first weekend after Labor Day (Sept. 10 this year) to coincide with the secular holiday. Pope Francis’ intention for World Day of Grandparents and Elderly takes a rich approach that challenges us to ensure the dignity of our elders, which begins by fostering relationships between young and old.


This year’s theme “His mercy from age to age,” makes a connection to the World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal (Aug. 1-6). “Indeed, dialogue between the elderly and the young helps to obtain a more complete vision of the way in which a more humane and fraternal society can be built,” Gleison De Paula Souza, secretary of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, told Vatican News. “The Day is a time to reflect with and for the elderly, not only as a Church: grandparents also need political support,” he said.

Pope Francis’ advocacy for grandparents and the elderly forms a thread in the tapestry of his pontificate, which began a decade ago, March 13, 2013. His election date brought to mind memories of my own beloved paternal grandmother, Irene, whose birthday was March 13. Widowed while raising nine children, she treasured her Catholic faith and lived it in the way she treated others, in her gratitude to God, and in the love she conveyed to family — whether related by blood or not. She listened to each of us with the ear of her heart.

While my siblings never got to meet our paternal grandfather, we were blessed to know our maternal grandparents. Grandpa Walter, who died when I was 12, was an artist by hobby. He encouraged my own interest in drawing, allowing me to use his prized colored pencils as we sat together at the kitchen table in his house.

St. John Paul II “asked us to be attentive to the role of the elderly in our families ‘because there are cultures which … in the past and in the present, set the elderly aside in unacceptable ways,’” Pope Francis said in “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). “The elderly help us to appreciate ‘the continuity of the generations,’ by their ‘charism of bridging the gap.’”

Bridging the gap — whether related by blood or not — can be an inspiring experience, as in the case of my mom, a grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of three. She and my dad attend the same Sunday Mass as a young family they don’t know but see often at church. 

One Sunday morning, the family sat in front of my parents and one of the kids acted up during Mass. Afterward, the mother apologized to my mom, adding, “But I just love to go to Mass and I don’t want to miss it.” My mom remembered her long-ago experience dealing with her unruly young children during Mass. She told the younger mother, reassuringly, “Just bring them to Mass. They’ll learn how to respond at Mass. We’ve all had small children and know what that’s like going to Mass with them.”

The warm relationships and dialogue painted in this column are a start. Some grandparents and elders feel neglected or alienated. Some struggle with physical or mental limitations. In our commitment to connect young and old, the Holy Father wants us to ask some soul-searching questions: What do we do for the elderly? How do we take care of them? Do our elderly feel lonely? Do they truly have dignity?

My mom made a connection with a younger mom and now prays for all young families to be inspired to come to Mass and pass on the faith. They have planted the seeds of connection.

(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at

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