By Dan Russo
WAVERLY — Stereotypes in popular culture about grandparents usually revolve around images of seniors taking it easy in rocking chairs, occasionally yelling at kids to get off their lawns.
But the truth is today’s grandparents aren’t just sitting around. In fact, now more than ever, they have an essential role in their families, particularly when it comes to passing on the faith to future generations.
“We had to realize that while society doesn’t value grandparents, God does,” said Crystal Crocker, to a group of about 120 people at St. Mary Church in Waverly. “You’re needed. You still have a job to do.”
Crocker, director of the Office of Evangelization for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was the keynote speaker at a daylong conference called “Grandparenting: Leaving a Legacy of Faith” — the first event of its kind in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Crocker is known for spearheading one of the first diocesan ministries in the nation focused on grandparents. She realized it was necessary to reach out to the elder members of the church because of the unique wisdom they can provide their families.
“You have to be a spiritual grandparent,” urged Crocker. “Our goal is to get our children and grandchildren to heaven.”
Msgr. Russell Bleich, a retired priest who grew up with Crocker’s father as parishioners at St. Boniface Parish in Garner, provided an introduction and opening prayer for the conference.
Crocker fired up the crowd with talks in the morning and afternoon on God’s call to grandparents and on passing on a legacy of faith. The day also featured Mass with Archbishop Michael Jackels and three breakout sessions. Foremost on the agenda were the tough questions facing grandparents such as: what do you do if your adult children have stopped practicing their faith? How do you negotiate your relationship with another set of grandparents? How do you be a teacher and Christian witness for your grandchildren while still respecting the authority and wishes of their parents?
The Grand Adventure
Deacon Gary and Kay Aitchison are two of the pioneers in grandparenting ministry in the archdiocese. They joined Mary Pedersen, director of Adult Faith Formation, and Matt Selby, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life, in leading breakout sessions. The Aitchisons are the authors of a six-session small group program for grandparents called “The Grand Adventure: A New Call to Grandparenting,” which is based on their experience with the Christian Family Movement. They’ve offered it at St. Cecilia Parish in Ames.
“Fifty-four percent of Americans over 50 are grandparents,” said Deacon Aitchison.
Grandparents are in a diverse set of situations. Some of these folks are raising their grandchildren or are attempting to stay connected to their children and grandchildren from long distances.
“We like to think that grandparents are blessings and anchors to our grandchildren,” said Kay Aitchison.
One of the most important functions grandparents have is to pass on family history through stories.
“When family stories are lost, a part of that family’s soul is lost,” said Kay.
To do this, the Aitchisons created a family trivia game and offered a list of other activities. They are available to help start small group programs in parishes.
Imitation of Christ
In his homily, Archbishop Jackels shared some of his own experiences with family members who are not practicing the faith, saying that he could identify with many at the conference as one of six children who were raised Catholic.
“I’m the only one who still goes to church,” he said.
He encouraged people to show people the truth and power of Jesus’ love by their own actions.
“The wagging finger doesn’t work so well with adult children,” said the archbishop. “The most effective thing is the example, the imitation of Christ.”
Archbishop Jackels said a good example “has the power to attract and transform.”
He told a story of a sibling whom he has helped out financially for some time. The archbishop said his family member knew it was his love for Jesus that inspired him to give and that fact has had an impact.
“Last month she wrote and said, ‘I’m going to buy a Bible,’” said the archbishop.
As part of the petition prayers at the Mass, the congregation prayed for all children and grandchildren, including children who may not have living grandparents.
Dos and Don’ts
Some of the attendees, like Jill and Dean Rowell of St. Isidore Parish in Springville, were brand new grandparents.
“We have a 3-month-old grandson,” said Jill. “Our son did have his baby baptized, but they aren’t actively attending Mass, so we’re hoping to hear some ideas on how to encourage him and our grandson in faith and knowing God.”
During his session, Selby, a convert to Catholicism from evangelical Protestantism, offered guidance on reaching out to adult children and other family members.
“Don’t’ blame yourself,” said Selby. “There’s free will involved. You’ve got to recognize their free will and don’t beat yourself up.”
He and Crocker complimented each other in their presentations by offering several practical “dos” and “don’ts,” when reaching out to adult children and other family not practicing their faith. The don’ts included:
- Don’t force them to go to Mass
- Don’t criticize their lifestyle
- Don’t nag them
- Don’t dismiss their objections
- Don’t assume you can change them
- Don’t bypass parents to reach grandchildren
Both speakers emphasized the importance of prayer, fasting and sacrificing for children and grandchildren. They also offered other tips, such as:
- Know your faith
- Live your faith
- Stay calm and humble
- Identify the big road blocks
- Clear up misconceptions
- Be patient
- Look for opportunities
- Meet them where they’re at
- Affirm what is good, true and beautiful
- Plant seeds (e.g. gifts)
- Listen to understand
- Propose, don’t impose
Crocker emphasized that it was important to let parents be parents.
“Let the parents discipline, and you can come in and be the consoler,” said Crocker. “Understand that it’s tough to be a parent. You can continue to influence, but you no longer have control. We can’t change people. God can change them.”
The grandparenting conference was sponsored by the Offices of Marriage and Family Life and Adult Faith of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Pedersen told participants she hopes the event will be a springboard for future efforts.
“This is a brand new ministry, and we are going forward with it, and it’s going to take the help of everyone here,” she said.
Kay Aitchison and her husband, Deacon Gary, are shown with a photo of their grandchildren. They spoke about a ministry for grandparents they started at St. Cecilia Parish in Ames at the Aug. 25 grandparenting conference. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)