The following is Fr. Dennis’ homily for the Feast of Sts. Anne & Joachim, given at the closing novena Mass at St. Anne Shrine in Fiskdale, MA, this past Monday. The Assumptionists have ministered at the shrine and parish since 1955.
I may not be the best person to talk about grandparents, since I knew none of my own grandparents. When I was born, both of my parents were over 40. What I heard growing up was that I was an afterthought (that was a nice way of saying that I was a mistake) and by that time my grandparents had all passed. I trust that they were interceding for me.
But this shouldn’t disqualify me entirely. This is a celebration of grandparents and the elderly. And if you wait long enough, you can speak from personal experience about the elderly, if not grandparents. I’m 73 years old. By anyone’s fair measure, despite my stupid denials, that makes me elderly. Get over it, Dennis.
We sometimes call it the arc of life. One way the arc of life comes home to me is this: when you’re growing up, you hear your elders complain that they keep forgetting stuff. Then, it’s your turn. I may very well forget the most important thing I want to say in this homily. I have much of it written down, but I have cataracts…
I think it’s important to understand that what Pope Francis has proposed for this annual celebration is not simply a nice gesture. It’s not just a Hallmark card occasion. I would go so far as to say that if it accomplishes its purpose, it has a good chance of restoring our humanity and re-balancing our life. This is intended to mean that when one segment of the human family is not sufficiently honored, the whole family is diminished. Not just the elderly – the whole human family is diminished when one of its parts is diminished. Let me try to make a case for the great importance of what the Church has begun to do with this observance.
In our first reading, God’s people have become impatient with Moses’ delay in coming down from the mountain, and in a kind of mad frenzy they fashion for themselves a substitute for God, an idol that they can see and take into their hands. Before we too quickly condemn them – we’ll leave that to God – we do well to ask ourselves, what are the idols of our own age and our own culture? What are our God-substitutes?
Let me offer this. Thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals, with everything that goes along with this is an idol of our age, a God-substitute. To think of ourselves this way is tantamount to saying that we sprung up out of nowhere, with no natural ties that bind, no need for dependence, and certainly not much reason for gratitude. As such, it is a distortion of the truth of our being. According to this view, the elderly inevitably get marginalized. At best they don’t count, because they do not enter into the horizon of my own projects, my own self-made advancement in the world. At worst, and for the same reasons, they’re dispensable, part of what Pope Francis calls the throw-away culture.
As an antidote, a corrective to this view, let me speak a bit less abstractly. I’ve said this before, but during my years on a college campus, I was frequently struck by how frequently students spoke of a special bond with a grandparent. It was fun trying to figure out why those relationships were so important. It came home to me that this was one way in which these students, immersed in a culture dominated by individualism, came to see themselves as belonging to something larger than themselves: a family, extending beyond siblings and parents to another generation. When they spoke of this bond, it sounded something like unconditional love. You know what that is, it’s the way God loves. With their grandparents, the students experienced the kind of love that God has for all of us.
Related to this, they also felt a level of acceptance that, for their part, led to a greater capacity to accept themselves. You know how it is with a teenager or college kid going through a difficulty or crisis. It’s not so easy to navigate this with their parents, where there is oftentimes too much static. But the grandparent, removed from the field of battle, so to speak, can help the grandchild to see that what they are going through is not the end of the world. Grandparents, for obvious reasons, are good for encouraging the longer view, for patience, for trying to gain perspective.
This is the reason that the elderly and grandparents are in a position to understand, better than most, the two parables of the kingdom in today’s Gospel. Life is not a sprint. It takes time. It unfolds over an extended period of time and growth comes in often hidden and mysterious ways. This is so important for young people to hear, that the signs of God’s presence are not always obvious, nothing at all like neon lights. God’s ways may even seem contradictory, but nevertheless God is always at work.
To sum this up, the most important lesson that grandparents can teach their grandchildren is that being is more important than having, more important even than accomplishments, with doing stuff. And I want to say, just being there. How important it is for young people to know that there is someone there for them, who desires their good in concrete and specific ways, who is on their side. That may not sound like much, but it should be lifted up and celebrated as one of life’s real blessings. To learn this lesson about the priority of being over having would go a long way toward restoring our humanity and re-balancing lives that have become imbalanced.
Our life is grounded in God’s love. The elderly and grandparents have such a privileged place to communicate this by their words and by their loving presence. On this last night of the novena to St. Anne and St. Joachim, we ask that the grandparents of our Lord may intercede for us in our time and place to help recover these essential dimensions of our humanity. God bless you.
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