Little Italian Grandmothers
When I was in the seminary, a New York City priest familiar with the city’s ethnic neighborhoods delivered an unusually memorable homily. He introduced his remarks with a droll comment about “little Italian grandmothers” and their large families. The details escape my memory now. But his quip drew twitters of chuckles from the seminarians. Despite the humorless politically-correct culture, the popular caricature of little Italian grandmothers remains comical.
The priest then spoke about the exalted dignity of the priesthood, the necessity to pray and prepare well as seminarians. We were enthusiastic to hear all about our vocation and eager to consider its noble dignity (perhaps also looking forward to some of the perquisites of office, including comfortable living accommodations, good food, and private bathrooms—hey, don’t laugh).
He returned to his opening remark and reminded us that if we pray and work hard and do all the things necessary to fulfill our vocation we have only begun. It is only a shadow of the holiness, endurance, and humility of those little Italian grandmothers, who pour out their lives in selfless generosity for their families.
There were no more twitters or chuckles from the audience. There was only the silence of embarrassment that comes when a rebuke hits home. But a new mental image of a heroically generous “little Italian grandmother” has stuck with me ever since.
The godly attributes of our generous and wise Italian grandmother are worth examining. She may bribe her babies and grandchildren with affection into good behavior, but she does not bribe for purposes of favoritism. Even if her favorites tug her in one direction or the other, she governs her household and family with justice, not playing one family member against another. She strives to bring out the best in her children, accommodating weakness but not giving in to excuses for irresponsibility. “The LORD is a God of justice, who knows no favorites” and is “…not unduly partial toward the weak” even as they “…hear the cry of the oppressed.” (Sirach 35: 12-13)
Throughout life, we entertain innumerable excuses to give in to discouragement. Any seasoned veteran of marriage could probably come up with an immediate handful of reasons to divorce or walk away from family duties at any given time. For that matter, any veteran priest would probably admit he’s capable of the same, at least in the recesses of his heart. It’s easy to give up.
But giving up is not in the vocabulary of our pious Italian grandmother. She would not even think of walking out on her husband. (As the old joke has it, “Murder, yes. Divorce, never.”) She endures because she knows her responsibilities to God and her family. In many respects, she doesn’t have time to walk away from it all. Her hands are too busy with planning family gatherings, keeping the cousins in touch, scheming behind the scenes to patch up misunderstandings—in short, the hard work of just keeping her family together. Satan tries to paralyze us with the evil spirit of discouragement. We readily identify ourselves as hopeless victims of ingratitude and injustice. But endurance and long-suffering are critical elements in personal holiness.
In the Gospel, Jesus addresses a parable “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (Luke 18:9-14). He places on the lips of the Pharisee words just like a modern politician: “‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income” (Luke 18:11)—and I’m the only candidate who has released income tax returns.
Our little Italian grandmother is not a Pharisee, although she is certainly confident in her Catholic faith. And she demands—at times in uncomfortable ways—that her children strengthen their faith by Mass attendance and Confession. She knows with her husband that she brought her children into the world to go to heaven, not hell. But she is not convinced of her own self-righteousness.
Confident in the truth of Christ, she is not particularly confident in herself. Like the tax collector in the parable, she prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” She is aware of her failures and sins, so we see her regularly in the confessional lines. In a strange but wonderful way, we find ourselves indicted and challenged by her humility. “…for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
In our culture, it doesn’t take much to be a celebrity—or at least a narcissist. The status comes with positions of influence and heaps of money—or a good deal of self-delusion. But it takes a whole lot more effort (with grace) to be like our little devoutly Catholic Italian—or Polish or Irish or Filipino—grandmothers. Or, as they say in Eastern Europe, the “babushkas,” who some suggest saved the Catholic faith in Eastern Europe from the ravages of Communism.
Their saintly traits of generosity, justice, endurance, and humility cannot be bought or sold or instantly claimed as our own. Their attributes are the stuff of Christian virtue—and form the foundation of Christian culture—leading to eternal life. Everyday motherhood is not a caricature but a composite image of the Blessed Mother and Jesus Christ Himself.
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