Ten years ago this month, I called my grandmother, a devout Catholic living in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia, to declare my intention to return to the Catholic Church of my youth, which I had left along with my evangelically-inclined parents after my First Communion. She was arrestingly unsurprised. “Oh, I knew you would, eventually,” she said matter-of-factly. She was certainly happy to hear the news, the fruition of God only knows how many rosaries offered on my behalf. Perhaps her unexpected restraint was marked by the fact that even with my conversion (or, more accurately, reversion), there was still plenty of work to be done.
My Catholic grandmother was born in Kansas in 1922 to descendants of Irish immigrants who had fled the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century (her grandfather served as an enlisted man in the Union Army, and later as an Indian Agent in Oklahoma). Her family suffered through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the latter tragedy taking one of her infant brothers. When World War II began, she worked for a time in a powder plant, and later as a waitress in Norfolk, serving members of the Navy and Coast Guard. That’s where she met my grandfather, a New Yorker, also a descendant of Irish immigrants, who was loading bombs onto ships.
Throughout those experiences—and raising five children through the turmoil and distemper of the 1960s and 1970s—my grandmother’s Catholic faith remained steadfast (my grandfather’s is a bit more of a complicated affair). She attended Mass as much as possible, said her prayers, and sought to communicate the Catholic faith to her progeny. When one of her daughter’s died unexpectedly in the early 1980s and left two young children, she and my grandfather stepped in and raised them as well.
As a child visiting my grandparents, I found my grandmother’s many spiritual devotions curious, and later, as I became more self-consciously Protestant, a bit absurd. It seemed she would devote an hour or more to going through her well-worn prayer book and all the little prayer cards therein. She (and my grandfather) would sit out on the deck overlooking the West Virginia mountains and pray their rosaries while I played with Legos on the carpet. Hadn’t Jesus exhorted us not to “babble on” in our prayers, thinking we will be heard by God because of our many words (Matthew 6:7)? Where was the “personal relationship with Jesus” my evangelical church had told me was the beating heart of Christian spirituality? How little I knew…
When, as a young Calvinist seminary student, I was confronted with some frustrating problems with Protestant theology and the inconvenient fact that I didn’t really understand Catholicism as well as I thought I did, I considered afresh my grandparents’ piety. Perhaps all those prayers cards were just as if not more effective forms of petition than my heartfelt, supposedly-creative invocations. Perhaps all those rosaries, besides being effective, were actually spiritually transformative for those who meditate on the joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and luminous mysteries. Perhaps the Mass, which Pope Benedict XVI called “the greatest and highest act of prayer,” was capable of spiritual power far beyond anything available in Protestantism.
When considering my extended family and the many blessings and objective goods that God had bestowed upon it, I wondered whether my grandparents’ prayers might have had anything to do with it. It was true, some family members were no longer Catholic, but almost all of them were still Christian, and the evangelical ones quite devoutly so. A few other family members, like me, had made their way back into Catholicism after a time of spiritual wandering or torpor.
As I mark ten years as a reverted Catholic, I’ve met many others with similar stories of pious grandparents who prayed without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Every time I attend a weekday Mass or stop in for Confession, I see the small cadres of faithful Catholic elderly with their beads and prayer books. No longer do I perceive them as deluded simpletons, grateful just to get out of the house during their retirement years. Rather, they are the very beating heart of the Church. Refined in the crucible of a lifetime of trials, they are wise and discerning. They know what is needed for the welfare and perpetuation of Catholicism to the next generation.
My grandmother is ninety-seven, and still a fiery, witty, Irish-Catholic crusader (my grandfather died a few months before my wedding, in 2012). Almost entirely immobile, she watches EWTN everyday for Mass. She daily prays her rosaries for countless causes. And she reminds any family member willing to listen of their religious responsibilities. She is, in a word, a saint.
American Catholicism is in desperate need of her Catholic grandparents (and even great-grandparents, in my grandmother’s case!). The scandals of sexual abuse and corruption have sullied the Church’s image and driven many from the pews. Lukewarm if not heretical preaching and teaching from many of its leaders and theologians have softened her evangelical witness. Technology, pornography, and substance addiction distracts and impoverishes her youth. Material decadence enfeebles her ranks. We need Catholic grandparents to beg God to send the Church—to paraphrase C. S. Lewis—a generation of “men with chests.” We need them to pray that God will save the Church from errant members and dangerous outsiders.
This is of course not to downplay the need for all the Church’s members, regardless of age, to re-invigorate the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lord knows I should do more of all three. Yet I suspect the intercessions of the Catholic elderly have a peculiar, unparalleled potency. Scripture tells us that the prayers of a righteous man are “powerful and effective” (James 5:16). If you visit a Catholic parish on any given weekday, there’s no question which demographic possesses an outsized number of those righteous men and women.
American Catholicism is in crisis, in part because America is in crisis. The petitions and sacrifices of our Catholic elderly are weapons in this battle, and we are desperate for them now. To all the Catholic grandparents out there—for the sake of Christ and His Church—pray for us!
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