This is the second part of the experience dedicated to grandparents as evangelizers, considered more in depth here in an interview with its two founders, Mr. and Mrs. Aitchison.
1) How is your course for grandparents going? What developments have there been in recent years? What are the plans for the future?
The course "The Grand Adventure: A New Call to Grandparenting" is designed for small groups of grandparents. The meetings follow a program of active discussion, where an interactive approach is encouraged. The program, which is very flexible, has been successful on the weekly basis as well as in the "once a month" format.
In particular, until now, it has applied the following methods: as group discussions, in small groups, where the participants share their faith; as a laboratory, for larger groups, led by a facilitator; as a class, led by an instructor.
Alongside our project, there is another program: "Grandparents Are Forever," designed to promote the participation of parishes in making grandparents new evangelizers. This program has evolved over the past two years, finally becoming what it is today: a purely parochial program, offered at the diocesan level. This program was developed by Father Donald Conroy, chaplain of the National Confederation of the Christian Family Movement in North America, with which we have always worked beneficially.
Regarding new developments in recent years, we have several new sessions that complement the original six-session course. On the other hand, as always, on the basis of the program, we have designed a weekend retreat for grandparents. Another beautiful innovation has consisted in writing a blessing and a prayer for grandparents that priests can use to bless them on or near the feast of Saints Joachim and Anna. We have also written a prayer to be recited especially during prayer times with their grandchildren.
Together with Father Donald Conroy, who works at the National Institute for the Family in Washington D.C., we finally encourage priests and deacons to take a moment to bless the grandparents when celebrating the baptisms of their grandchildren: this is a strong and very meaningful gesture that every parish could make, in view of promoting grandparents.
2) Where do you see the greatest difficulties in teaching a grandparent to be an evangelizer? What are your suggestions to overcome these snags?
The biggest problems we have encountered all stem from the fact that we live in a society that does not appreciate—or takes for granted—the specific contribution of elderly people to the common good. This can lead grandparents to underestimate their own value—within the family or in the society—and to neglect their traditional vocation, thus losing sight of unique and incomparable gifts and talents. This, then, sets off a domino effect that ends in their open refusal to accept their responsibility of binding together the different generations.
We would, therefore, like this negative trend to be inverted, through the fundamental work of parishes, which we invite to acknowledge more strongly the importance of the role of grandparents in the stages of the cycle of family life.
The parish must, therefore, first of all, find ways to honor the contribution of the grandparents, for example—we've already mentioned this—with a special blessing on the feast of Saints Joachim and Anna. Moreover, each parish community must seek to promote the creation of a group of grandparents, who explore and assess the situation of the other grandparents present there, by asking the following questions: "What are our needs? What gifts and talents characterize our age? What is the deep vocation of each grandparent? In what ways is God calling us at this time in our lives? How can we better serve our families and the community?"
These are all essential preparatory questions for outlining the main tasks of grandparents, which are to be dealt with through specific programs.
3) One of the most pressing issues today, in the Western world, is the crisis of the alliance between the generations, as each one pursues more and more its own selfish interests. Do you think that these evangelizing grandparents, in addition to mending the ties with the generation of their grandchildren, can do the same with their children and teach them something too?
The evangelizing action of a grandparent, aware of his/her vocation, cannot fail to have, consequentially, a positive effect on the children and grandchildren. In fact, it will not go unnoticed, but throw a seed that will sprout sooner or later.
When grandparents are aware of God’s love and, hence, of their unique value, they evangelize naturally, through the witness of their lives. On the contrary, preaching their Credo overzealously to their children and grandchildren is rarely successful; but by living their faith quietly, day after day, they will certainly have a positive impact on those around them.
In particular, the grandparents’ testimony of faith is perceptible to all through: their life of prayer, especially the prayer in the family, at home; their regular attendance at Sunday Mass; their preferences regarding activities, friends and entertainment; their sensitivity to the suffering of others, seen in personal service and financial support to good works; the sharing of family prayers and traditions; the books they read, sharing them with others; works of art in their homes; the narrative of their stories of faith and of those of the family; their attitudes and the way they talk; and the kind of love they show to family and friends.
4) What advice would you give to those who want to design and implement a project like yours that focuses on the value of old age? What are the pitfalls to be avoided?
First, we recommend starting with the acknowledgement of the gift that grandparents represent for their families and the parish community. The goal to keep in mind is in fact the increase of the grandparents’ self-awareness, first of all in the parish community.
Then, the next step consists in developing the outline of the program as such and involving the priest and the parish staff. At this point, it is therefore essential to organize a group of grandparents that will focus its attention on the problems encountered in the specific context of the particular parish, with the aim of arousing original and creative responses there. After giving a soul to the program, it is extremely important to make it not only useful but also exciting. Finally, we suggest setting up a team of grandmothers, who publicize the program, making it widely known, in circles of laypeople and religious.
We believe that the support of the pastor and his collaborators—both priests and laity—is essential for avoiding the pitfalls coming from inexperience. Studying the demographic situation of each parish in order to see the deepest needs of its grandparents is, then, another precaution that certainly must be taken. One should not underestimate the fact that today’s grandparents are generally healthier, wealthier and better educated than those of the past.
Equally important for achieving the goals is also the involvement of other age groups in the program.
Choosing the best time of year to start the program is another strategy that we can recommend to everyone. For example, in our experience, we realized that Lent is a particularly suitable time for initiating such a project.
Finally, it’s essential to plan the program’s activities with respect to the different times of day (for example, is it better to meet in the evening or in the afternoon? Is it better to connect it to an event that already exists, such as daily Mass, or not?). Finally, we consider it necessary to pay special attention to the spiritual dimension. Many grandparents in fact want to know more about their faith and about how to transmit it, in practice, to the next generation in their families.