St. Anne and the Special Role of Grandparents, August 2, 2022
It was a profoundly powerful experience to watch Pope Francis visit Lac Ste. Anne, a pilgrimage site in Alberta of particular importance to many Indigenous people in Canada. As the official Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage website notes, the lake was “first called Wakamne or God’s Lake by the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nationwho live on the west end of the Lake, and Manito Sahkahigan or Spirit Lake by the Cree.” That the visit came on July 26, the Feast of St. Anne, was especially significant. St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, holds a special place for many Indigenous Catholics because she was a grandmother to Jesus and, in Indigenous communities, family members – and especially elders – are treated with particular reverence and respect. This visit, then, on a feast day of such significance to many Indigenous Canadians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, signaled to many a renewed commitment on the part of the Pope to listen, to engage, and to work harder to understand Indigenous communities.
On a visit designed to carry forward conversations about how to bring about reconciliation and healing over the pain caused by residential schools, the Pope chose wisely in addressing the importance of grandparents to families. Those of us who have no experience of how families were broken apart when children were forcibly taken away from their families and sent off to residential schools cannot begin to imagine the sufferings of the children, of their parents or of their other family members, including grandparents.
In a happy extended family, grandparents can be a great a source of wisdom for their children, helping them develop into confident, capable parents, with grandparents offering tips on everything from how to calm a colicky baby to setting boundaries for teenagers. Grandparents can be a wonderful help in caring for children, doing after-school pick-ups, or providing weary parents with childcare so Mom and Dad an get a break and refresh their relationship. There are endless ways in which grandparents enrich family life.
For grandchildren, grandparents are a unique source of family stories, sharing family histories in a way parents often simply don’t have time to do. Without the day-to-day worries and stresses that come with caring for a young family, grandparents can focus on offering their grandchildren a healthy dose of doting, non-judgmental love, a love that is returned many times over from appreciative grandchildren. The bond between a grandparent and a grandchild can be one of life’s sweetest pleasures for families, and to have that relationship disrupted can cause immeasurable loss. Thus, in acknowledging the importance of grandparents, it appears the Pope was again offering acknowledgement of some of the pain the residential schools caused to so many, while also again affirming an oft-heard message of this that age does not wither value, even if roles and duties shift. We all offer value to our communities – and our families.
We don’t know much about St. Anne or her husband, St. Joachim. In fact, she is not even mentioned in the canonical gospels. What we do know about Anne and Joachim comes to us from Church tradition. It isn’t hard, though, to imagine two loving grandparents who likely worried frantically for their daughter when her pregnancy was announced, two loving grandparents who fell head over heels in love with their grandson when they learned of his birth. We can picture a grandmother and grandfather who celebrated moments like the presentation in the temple, or worried when the young Jesus couldn’t be found, just as all grandparents live out moments of celebration and worry. To turn to St. Anne, then, for guidance and support in family matters makes a great deal of sense – and especially for those of us who are grandparents! Recognizing the particular importance of St. Anne to our Indigenous brothers and sisters is a sign of the importance of preserving and protecting family bonds.
St. Anne, who is patron saint of the province of Quebec, has long held a special place for many Canadians. The site we now call Lac Ste. Anne has been recognized in Indigenous communities as a deeply spiritual place long from before the Catholic Church was established in Canada. With the wisdom of a grandmother, St. Anne can help us ponder these realities, these two unique but complementary understandings, in respectful and productive ways.