During my formative years, I had the distinct privilege of spending time with my grandads and even one great-grandad. In the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, our pace of life and activities was very different from today. We attended school and church, but a lot of our time was centered around our home. Even more unique were our regular visits with extended family on a weekly basis. This afforded me time to be in the company of my grandparents frequently. I listened to their talk about work and how they solved problems and the things that occupied their time. I enjoyed accompanying my dad’s dad on outings to pick blackberries and then had the pleasure of helping in the process to make wine in his cellar.
My Grandpop was a nuts-and-bolts kind of man, always busy with his work as caretaker of the cemetery, keeping their only vehicle (an old Ford truck) running, and maintaining the house where he and my grandmom raised thirteen children. It was fascinating learning things from him. I would follow him around and help load coal into their furnace and collect items from the cool cellar that housed their canned vegetables and held Grandpop’s workbench. He liked to show any of us grandkids the things he did for work, as well as the projects he worked on, such as building cedar benches for anyone who wanted one and making wine from the fruits he picked. They lived a hop, skip and a jump from the monastery church and school where they walked to 6am daily Mass. By society’s standards, Pop was minimally educated and made a meager wage that kept them in the lower economic level their entire lives. The gifts we received were hand-made and simple, but lots of time was invested in being family together. I loved being in Grandpop’s shadow and considered the cemetery near their house to be the most magical place in my world with its little streams and bridges and huge fir trees and rolling hills. Amongst those resting in peace, my dad and his twelve siblings grew up under the tutelage of my grandpop’s calloused hands and the soft-spoken voice of my grandmom.
My grandmom’s parents lived just three blocks away, and my great-granddad was a successful stone mason with a shop full of heavy, rough-hewn tools that carved important information into big pieces of granite for the deceased. As an adult, I realize how fortunate I was to have enjoyed weekly visits to my great-grandparents. Great-granddad was a tall, polite, and loving man. He would sit me atop a piece of stone and include me in the conversations with my dad and other family. He had two framed pictures over the desk in his shop – the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As a kid, I always felt that they were watching me. These images hanging in a prominent place in his shop spoke volumes about the faith my great-granddad had. No matter how busy he was, he had a way of making me feel cherished when we came by. And a visit never ended until he sent us up to the house to get a drink and a slice of cake from great-grandmom.
My mom’s dad was another wonderful grandfather with whom I spent much time while growing up. (I never met my grandmom because she died suddenly only three months after my parents were married.) Pop was a tall, handsome man who always wore a suit, and I mean always! He was retired from the phone company and had raised five children through the Depression era. His parents and aunt lived with them in a small but comfortable row home. Most of my time spent with Pop was at our house where he would come most days in the afternoons and stay through dinner. Sometimes we would pick him up at his apartment and I loved seeing his stuff. He was an avid follower of the Baltimore City Fire Department and had a squawk box to hear all the fire calls. He had boxes with index cards full of information on the different fire houses, calls, and each fireman. When my mom was growing up, he would pile the kids in his car and they would go watch the firemen fight fires. He supported the firemen with visits and gifts and had a deep respect for what they did for the community. I loved sitting at his feet in our living room listening to him tell stories of growing up in Baltimore and of his family. He was a regular member at our dinner table in his later years and always took an interest in my studies and in the things I was doing.
When my parents would go away on their annual business trip, Pop would come take charge of our household. He made flapjacks for breakfast, walked me to the school bus stop and would meet me there each afternoon. I didn’t need an escort, but it was his way of sending me off. He played cards with us and told stories and made the best stew I’ve ever eaten! He made sure to remind me to say my prayers and he took us to church. Pop was present for all the holidays throughout the years, along with a lot of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Our house was the typical gathering place for my mom’s siblings and so I guess that’s why Pop always came over. In his later years when he could no longer drive, my parents wanted him to move in with us, but he insisted on his own independence and lived out his days, until he died at 89, in his apartment. As a kid, I never thought twice about Pop always being at our home. As an adult, I look back and see the treasure I had in being loved by a man who had all the time in the world to talk. It impacted me more than I realized. Mom and dad took care of the needs of the family, but Pop took the time to share himself with me and take an interest in what I was thinking as a young girl trying to figure out what was important in life. A generation removed, Pop made it abundantly clear how important each member of the family was to him, which instilled in me a strong desire for continued close family bonds in my adult life.
I then watched how my dad became granddad to my six children. He was busy seven days a week and lots of nights running his business and providing for our family when I was a child, but as a granddad, he learned how to switch gears and devote attention to his grandchildren through time spent together. He took his role as grand patriarch seriously and lived out sharing the gospel of Jesus with all his grands in very simple but tangible ways. He was a great encourager of all the pursuits of each one and never hesitated to share his testimony of how God helped him on a daily basis to do what he was supposed to do. He shared prayers and taught them the power of talking with God all day long. And when my parents visited for two to three weeks each Christmas season, everyone could see how he laid out his days. He would be seen in a quiet chair early in the mornings with his well-worn prayer book praying his prayers. Then he and mom would attend morning Mass with any of us who would accompany them. He joined in our family prayer time and nightly Rosary.
I have also enjoyed witnessing my husband embrace the role of Pops to our sweet grandchildren. He rejoices in the gift of each one and prays daily for them to always hear and respond to God’s call on their lives. He loves playing with them and particularly sharing his love of music with them.
The treasure of knowing my granddads and being so loved by them has been a gift in my life that I know has helped me understand the love God our Father has for me. The beauty of the continuous bond from great-grandfather to grandfather to father is powerful and assures me of my heritage. The greatest lesson I learned from these loving men was to invest yourself in others and especially to build up and encourage each member. It doesn’t seem mighty or grand, but it strengthens the foundation of our lives and nurtures deep, holy growth in our specific God-ordained purpose. The richness of a grandfather’s love and care is a gift in the family. Their patriarchal leadership and security are God’s design for how families are enjoined together through the generations and meant to relate. I have had the privilege of this delightful heritage and my prayer is that it will continue to be nourished by the fathers to come in our family.
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When I think of role models for Catholic men, I think of St. Joseph, St. Christopher, St. Thomas More, St. Vincent Pallotti, and men in my life like my father, grandfather and even certain professors. When I think of who teaches me best about how to be a Catholic man, I think of Mary. Now, before you laugh, let me point out that Mary can be a source of both masculine and feminine spirituality. Typically, Mary is viewed primarily as a role model for women. So what can Mary teach Catholic men about our faith and how to live our lives today?
First, Mary is introduced to us in the Gospels when an angel appears to this timid young Jewish girl, and addresses her, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Immediately, we can tell that the life of Mary is deeply intertwined with the love and charity of God. How is it that a young woman managed to achieve such favor with God? Or maybe to phrase it in another way, what is it about Mary that made God choose her?
The Old Testament is filled with stories of women answering God’s call. Sarah, Hannah, Deborah, Ruth, Judith and Esther are just a few of the many that could be named here. They all paved the way for Mary’s role in the Incarnation. “Mary stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from Him” (CCC #489). Throughout salvation history in the Bible, God constantly chooses the weak to lead the strong, men and women alike. This choice of God goes against what society often tries to tell us as men. Society tells us that men should be brutish with no need for a Savior because we can “do it on our own.” Mary stands out among all believers because of her eagerness to do God’s bidding. It is her desire for God, not independence, which brings her closer to God.
Mary exemplifies complete obedience in God and submits herself to his will. In saying “yes,” Mary showed us a unique holiness. While God chose Mary from her conception, she was still given the opportunity to consent to God. Many Catholics today have the fear of speaking about faith in public. What if faith wanted to manifest itself in you? That may be shocking to think about, but the obedience of faith that Mary professed is what revealed her grace to us. As men, we look to Mary for strength and as a witness to doing the Lord’s will under immense pressure.
Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, came from this humble woman. Mary’s love, grace, and faithfulness brought Christ into this world. Mary’s choice brings us closer to Christ’s humanity. While Christ is the Son of God, he is also the Son of Mary. This helps us to come to know God and build our relationship with him. By better understanding Mary, we can better understand Christ.
Mary is key to God’s plan. The willing “yes” became the center of our faith. God did not need to wait for Mary’s acceptance, but her consent was vital for the birth of the Church to come out of love, charity, and grace. It is for that reason that “Mary is the symbol and most perfect realization of the Church” (CCC #507). Her “role in the Church is inseparable from her union with Christ” (CCC #964).
For these reasons, Mary serves as the model for how the Church should practice faith and charity. She is the model servant of God for both women and men. As members of the Church today, we can look to her for the attributes of obedience, faith, hope and burning charity as a way to lead more masculine lives. Instead of feeding of off the stereotypes of what men should be, we can turn to Mary for direction on how to live our lives according to God’s plan. She is an “advocate and helper” for us all (CCC #969). The “Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men…flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ” (CCC #970). Mary advocates for us and helps us to come to know Christ. Our prayers to Mary extend beyond praying to a humble woman, in praying to Mary, we acknowledge our faith in the Incarnation in Christ and the sacrifice Christ made because he loves us.
By praying to Mary, we can come to understand how much both Mary and Jesus Christ love each of us. It is our duty to have faith in Christ through Mary. In doing so, we can become true men for God, and not simply men chasing our own ambitions. Mary accompanies us on this pilgrimage of our faith (CCC #972). She intercedes for us in our attempts to know Christ, and just because we are men does not mean that we cannot try to become more like Mary.
Thomas Coast works in the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire and is working on his M.A. in Theology through the Echo Faith Formation Program at the University of Notre Dame.