Little Italian Grandmothers
One of the most memorable homilies I’ve heard was given by a New York City priest when I was in the seminary. He introduced his homily with a droll comment about “little Italian grandmothers” and their big families. The details escape me. But his quip drew twitters of chuckles from the seminarians. The popular caricature of little Italian grandmothers can be comical.
The priest then spoke about the exalted dignity of the priesthood, the necessity to pray and prepare well as seminarians. We were eager to hear all about our vocation and eager to consider its noble dignity (perhaps looking forward to some of the perquisites of office including comfortable living accommodations, good food and private bathrooms—hey, don’t laugh).
But then he returned to his opening remark. He reminded us that if we pray and work hard and do all the things necessary to fulfill our vocation, then maybe we will begin to attain a shadow of the holiness, endurance, and humility of those little Italian grandmothers who pour out their lives in selfless generosity for the families. There were no more twitters or tweets from the crowd; just the mildly embarrassed silence 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 affections tugs 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” (1 Sirach).
Throughout life we entertain innumerable reasons to give in to discouragement. Any seasoned veteran of marriage could probably come up with an immediate handful of reasons to divorce or simply 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 to keep the cousins in touch, scheming behind the scenes to patch up misunderstandings, in short, the tough work of just keeping her family together. Endurance and long-suffering are critical elements in personal holiness. And it is the work of Satan to paralyze us with the evil spirit of discouragement, always identifying ourselves as hopeless victims of ingratitude and injustice.
Saint Paul’s reward for a life of sacrifice in proclaiming the Gospel was the narrow gate of martyrdom. Deserted by everybody, he was murdered alone in darkness, tied to a tree and beheaded by the Romans. He saw it coming, and embraced his victimhood with serenity: “I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Our little Italian grandmother imitates the toughness of Saint Paul.
In the Gospel Jesus addresses a parable “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (Luke 18:9-14). The words He places on the lips of the Pharisee sound 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”—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 personally indicted and challenged by her humility, “…for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Nowadays 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 literally 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 foundational to a Christian culture—that leads to eternal life. Not a caricature, but an image of the Blessed Mother and Jesus Christ Himself.
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