Legatus members across the country are spreading the faith to a new generation . . .
When it comes to the Catholic faith, grandparents can have a powerful influence on their grandchildren. In fact, many Catholics cite grandparents as their greatest faith influence. Legatus members, whose mission is to “spread the faith,” take the mission to heart especially with their own families.
Setting an example
Brian Von Gruben is Legatus’ Central Region director. He and his wife Marsha have six children and are expecting their 34th grandchild. All of their children are faithful Catholics. Von Gruben admits that while raising their kids, their household was nothing like the Waltons’ (a seemingly perfect TV family from the ‘70s). However, he says, God sustained them.
“God blessed our efforts. Our kids watched us and learned from our good and bad examples. But whatever the ups and downs, faith was always the paramount thing in our life,” said Von Gruben, who is retiring from his Legatus post at the end of June.
Today, when the Von Grubens visit their grandchildren, they take part in evening prayers and family rosaries. In terms of passing on the faith, Von Gruben looks to himself first.
The Von Grubens at a 2009 baptism
“The most important thing for me is to have a healthy and ever-deepening faith,” he explained. “I can’t pass something on if I don’t have it — so I need a daily prayer life.”
Another important thing, he said, is for older people to be joyful and peaceful.
“Sometimes old people are grumpy. They worry about getting old and not feeling well. Kids need to see a joyful grandparent for the faith to be attractive. They need to be fun, playful and have a twinkle in their eye,” he said. “I always tell my grandchildren foolish stories about a very nice, old man — who’s me. They love that. I also tell them Old Testament stories — especially David and Goliath. They think these stories are really cool.”
Von Gruben believes that holiness has to be taken seriously, meaning no foul language or bad behavior on the part of grandparents. “Your grandkids need to see that some people take seriously the job of being good people,” he said.
Preach by example
Mike and Jackie Winn, members of Legatus’ Chicago Chapter,have eight children and 57 grandchildren. All of their children are church-going Catholics.
“How did we do it? We started with prayer as we raised them,” said Mike Winn. “Another basic thing is that we preached by example, not by words. If they saw that something was important to us, it became important to them.”
The role of family reunions and family prayer, Winn said, can definitely strengthen a grandchild’s faith. The Winns have a farm outside of Chicago where they converted several barns into residences. At Christmas, the whole family — all eight children and 57 grandkids — gets together. The oldest Winn daughter is a chef who plans the week’s entire menu. Each day a different family does the cooking, serving and entertaining. Children will sing, play an instrument or just tell a joke or story for the entire clan.
“We pray a family rosary after dinner every night during these reunions,” Winn said. “Of course, we do this in freedom. Some mothers with young babies with other needs might not attend. We also have a little chapel and shrine on the farm — and we ask a priest to come and say Mass for us.”
Spending one-on-one time with a grandchild is also very important. The Winns live near their daughter who homeschools her 14 children. Twice a week, one of them — a grandson named Liam — sleeps over the Winns’ house so he can get tutored by a special-needs teacher who lives nearby.
Joe & Paula Melancon with six of their eight grandchildren (Blackburn Photography-Houston)
Joe and Paula Melançon, members of Legatus’ Baton Rouge Chapter, have three children and eight grandchildren. All of their children are faithful Catholics. For their success, they credit the highly Catholic area where they raised their family — and the faith that their children saw among their grandparents.
“With our own children, Paula made every sacrament a huge celebration,” said Joe Melançon, a member of Legatus’ Board of Governors. “We always had a family celebration and sent out invitations.”
Because two of the Melançons’ children live out of state, they make a special effort to travel to their grandchildren’s first sacraments. When the Melançons’ eldest grandchild, Marie-Claire, was preparing for Confirmation in Houston, she asked her grandmother Paula to be her sponsor.
“It was very special,” said Paula. “The Confirmation formation program at her parish was five months. We would Skype every Friday afternoon and talk through the Confirmation book. It was wonderful for me to have this insight into her preparation.”
When faith is lacking
Not all grandparents, however, have the blessing of seeing their grandchildren practice the faith — sometimes because their adult children have left the faith, married a non-Catholic or gotten a divorce.
One of the saddest things is when a grandchild is not baptized. Tom Peterson, a member of Legatus’ Atlanta Chapter and founder of Catholics Come Home, is sometimes asked if grandparents can “secretly” baptize a grandchild.
“Grandparents can talk to their children about how important baptism is for their grandchild’s salvation,” he explained. “Parents can be persuaded to understand the necessity of this important sacrament. Ultimately, grandparents must have the consent of the grandchild’s parents for baptism and for the grandparents to be the religious educators, if the parents will not be.”
In some cases, parents refuse to pass on the faith to their children, which is a painful trial for grandparents.
The Winn Family
“First and foremost, grandparents can pass on the faith to their grandchildren by setting an example of faith in their lives and never ceasing to pray for them,” Peterson said. “Pray with your grandchildren or around your grandchildren. Consider giving them little religious gifts on special occasions — a rosary, a little picture or statue of Jesus, a children’s illustrated Bible, etc. Let them ask questions, and teach them about Jesus and the Catholic Church He founded.”
However, grandparents should never demean the parents’ lack of faith.
“Rather, be a beacon of peace and light in your grandchildren’s lives so they will see the example of faith you set and be eager to ask you questions about ‘the reason for your hope,’” Peterson said. “If the parents are not bothered by you teaching their children the faith, take opportunities to bring them to Mass with you or instruct them in little bits and pieces when you’re together.”
The issue of grandparents passing on the faith touches many hearts. Catherine Wiley founded the Dublin, Ireland-based Catholic Grandparents Association (CGA) in order to help them in this task.
“I grew up surrounded by people of faith,” said CGA founder Catherine Wiley. “That’s not happening now. I have four children and 10 grandchildren. I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy to pass on the faith to them in today’s world.”
One of Wiley’s own children is divorced and his children are not baptized.
L-R: CGA president Maire Printer, Boston’s Cardinal
Sean O’Malley, CGA founder Catherine Wiley
“This is a hidden cross which many grandparents share, especially in terms of knowing what to do, how to speak in front of your grandchild,” she said. “It’s difficult because the kids won’t know the faith and you can’t go over the parent’s head.”
When these grandchildren stay with her, however, they take part in Mass and family prayers along with the other grandchildren.
In 2007, Wiley organized Ireland’s first grandparents’ pilgrimage to Our Lady of Knock shrine. The event drew 5,000 people. It doubled the following year, and grew to 14,000 in 2009, prompting her to found the Catholic Grandparents Association.
Wiley wrote to Pope Benedict XVI about the need for a grandparent’s prayer. He responded in 2008 by writing a special prayer for grandparents, which is given to all CGA members. The group has since spread to England, the United States, Australia, the Solomon Islands, Malta, Canada, Philippines, Scotland and Mexico. In Ireland, CGA chapters provide a forum for grandparents to discuss their challenges. Members also pray for and strengthen each other.
“This group gives grandparents a voice because sometimes they feel like they’ve failed,” said Wiley. “But they aren’t failing. They have to soldier on. Grandparents are very concerned about what’s happening with their grandkids, and they want to do something about it.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.
For more information, visit: CatholicGrandparentsAssociation.org