Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome
Special Coverage Index | NCR home page





Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT

He was the grandfather of their souls

By Joan Chittister, OSB

By the time you read this, Rome will already have buried its bishop. But as I write this, at the Vatican the last person is still filing past the bier of Pope John Paul II and stragglers are still straining to taste some part of the history of this moment.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that like all the family wakes I ever attended as a child, this final day of viewing has been a day of story telling.

One series of them, in particular, fascinated me. "The really interesting thing," a British journalist told me, "is that I had no press pass and couldn't get beyond the barriers so I simply stood and took pictures of the crowd." Then, clearly trying to understand what he saw, he paused a moment before he continued: "When I looked at my pictures later, I realized that I hadn't seen a person in the line who was over 25." Another pause: "What do we make of that?"

(NCR/Rita Larivee)
Though the Catholic tradition is old, a large part of the crowd was distinctly young.
The question struck me. What do we make of the fact that so many of the young, in a culture that is youth-centered, have made such efforts to be here for the funeral of an 84 year old pope?

More than that, what do we, as a church, make of that in the face of the emphasis on youthful youth ministers. One diocese in the United States, for instance, has just fired three nun chaplains at the local Newman Center. The priest director explains the move on the grounds that they want younger ministers who can better identify with college students. They want to begin a "new'evangelization" that nuns over 50, apparently, cannot manage with the younger generation.

Dear Reader:
     We have seen traffic to our Web site triple during this extraordinary and historic time in the Catholic church. We believe that among the thousands of people visiting our Web pages over the last several weeks are many who are new to National Catholic Reporter.
     For those who are new, we want to tell you more about our independent newsweekly and invite you to subscribe.

I couldn't help but wonder what this particular diocese would have said if John Paul II had applied for the job.

I also couldn't help but wonder, however, what exactly it was that bound this pope in a special way to the young of this generation. Maybe the answer is far simpler than we realize.

Maybe the answer has something to do with grandparents. We live in a society where grandparents and the notion of the extended family are almost a thing of the past. We call it "the nuclear family" but we mean that people are born in one state, raised in a second, educated in a third, employed in a fourth and retired in a fifth. As a result, they lose their roots, their relatives, and, for both the old and the young, their sense of generational connections.

Grandparents, in a culture such as this, are people who live at a distance and send Christmas packages. They are not people who take a child fishing anymore or give them silly bear hugs or smile at them in particularly indulgent ways. Maybe this pope and his quiet patience with their music, their cheers, their wild applause and roaring chants gave them a touch of that.

Maybe he was the grandfather of their souls, the sign of wisdom to them, rather than authority, the model of the good life and the ideals they seek.

Read Joan Chittister's weekly columns
Previous and current columns from An American Catholic in Rome

Adolescence or adulthood: which? Posted April 22, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
And he shall be called . . .  Posted April 20, 2005 at 4:30 p.m. CDT
I missed the smoke; I got the idea Posted April 19, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Never mind the papabile, consider the papacy Posted April 17, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
The underside of the issue Posted April 16, 2005 at 4:10 p.m. CDT
Antigone or Ismene: The new choice Posted April 15, 2005 at 6:24 a.m. CDT
Win a couple, lose a couple Posted April 13, 2005 at 2:05 p.m. CDT
When demonstrations are not demonstrations Posted  
Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT
The purpose of the interregnum Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT
Be aware of Greeks bearing gifts
Posted April 10, 2005 at 10:42 a.m. CDT
He was the grandfather of their souls Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT
Poignant and paradoxical Posted April 7, 2005 at 8:09 a.m. CDT

Three years ago this week, Sr. Chittister began writing a weekly Web column for NCR. Click on this link to read From Where I Stand by Sr. Joan Chittister.

Maybe that's a lesson to the rest of us, as well. Cutting off institutional ties between the old and the young -- just when the young need adults around them people who are more wisdom figures than either authority figures or professionals trying to be peers -- may not be doing either group a favor. This pope and these young people remind us that the old are not too brittle to bring anything of value to the young and the young are not too superficial to recognize it.

Or, as one of the story-tellers on this final day of the people's wake reminded us, when someone asked this Holy Father how he was doing, he cocked his tilted head on his bent over shoulders and gave his enquirer a knowing look. Then, with a twinkle in his eye he said, "From the neck down, not too well; from the neck up, fine."

It's a good story for a culture on the verge of substituting ageism for wisdom to remember.


Top of Page   | Home
Copyright © 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280