As a kid I always associated two things with the first day of school — getting new shoes and having to write about what I did during summer vacation. My siblings and I never really had exceptional summer adventures, but I do have fond memories of beach outings, camping trips, museum visits, swimming lessons and hours spent playing with the other kids in the neighborhood.
It’s been many years since I got new school shoes or wrote about my summer vacation, but this summer I did something exceptional. Although I have been a Little Sister for over thirty-five years, in July I went away to camp for the very first time! Along with another member of my community and fifteen other women religious, I participated in a discernment camp for high school girls sponsored by the diocese of Arlington, Virginia.
Our days at camp were filled with sports activities and various other team challenges, crafts and plenty of Gen Z-centered conversation. We also had daily Mass, Rosary, Eucharistic adoration and lively spiritual talks given by the sisters. Along with college-age volunteers, each pair of women religious was responsible for a dozen or so high school girls throughout the week.
Our days were jam-packed with activities and the heat was sweltering, but I thought I was doing pretty well keeping up with the girls. Then towards the end of the week, one of the young women — a very lively, outgoing teen — called me our team’s grandmother! That was a blow to my ego — “Not an older sister or your mother, but your grandmother?” I asked. “Really?”
“Grandmothers are so kind and supportive;” she replied. “They try to make each person feel special. That’s what you’ve been doing for us.”
This young woman’s insight was a real consolation to me. Later, during adoration, I reflected on this conversation, a bit ashamed of myself. I realized that the ageism that seems to infect our society has also affected me. As someone who has devoted my life to advocating for older persons, I should have been honored to be identified as grandmotherly!
I thought about our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, who identified completely with the elderly poor to whom he had offered a home. Although she was accustomed to stopping by the local charity office to pick up the provisions to which her elderly were entitled, on one occasion an impatient aid worker rebuked her, directing her to get in line with the other beggars. Jeanne complied, rejoicing to truly be poor among the poor.
I was also reminded of the testimonies of the young Little Sisters who had lived with Jeanne Jugan during the long years at the motherhouse when she was no longer recognized as the foundress. Her young companions thought she was just another elderly Sister living among them, but they loved her dearly because she was so good to them. Many years later they still remembered her kindness, many testifying for her canonization process.
“Ah! If you only knew how good she was! She was so gentle…. She spoke firmly when necessary, but she thought no more about it afterwards.” … “Her charity touched the hearts of all; we were at ease with her, like a mother in her family, and each one could say to herself: ‘How kind she is; she loved me!’”
As I continued to reflect on the life and example of our foundress, I felt honored to be identified by a young person as “grandmotherly.” Realizing I would never make my mark on either the soccer field or the volleyball court, I really had been trying to take an interest in each young woman and lend each one a listening ear, and I was grateful to know they had appreciated my efforts.
I think this is what young people are really looking for as they mature into adulthood and seek to discern their vocation in life. We can do them and the Church a great service by honing our skills as wise elders, spiritual grandmothers and grandfathers.
Pope Francis often speaks of just this. Talking to journalists at World Youth Day, he stated that the main issue related to the young is knowing how to accompany them, and that grandparents are better at this than parents. Speaking directly to young people in Lisbon, he said that grandparents are “rays of light” and “the roots of our joy.”
To be a ray of light or a root of joy — what beautiful ideals for which to strive as we age!
Sr Constance Carolyn, Communications Director