Gabriel Rodriguez displays a photo of his grandmother, Antonia, which he carries with him on his phone. (Submitted photo)

If you walked into Jean Kelly’s house in Elm Grove today, you would likely think that small children lived there. There’s the toys and puzzles in the living room, and the table in the kitchen used for crafts. Her oven is covered in saint magnets that her three young granddaughters love to play with, and she is making space in her yard to plant a Marian garden with them.

“I know probably most people would want all the toys and craft supplies put away, but I just love it,” Kelly said.

Amid the din of the mid-morning bustle at the Stein Campus of the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care in Milwaukee, Gabriel Rodriguez gazes silently at a photograph on his phone. It depicts an elderly woman with light brown hair and a warm smile, holding a potted seedling. It’s his grandmother, Antonia. She passed away only a few weeks ago, and the wound of the loss is still raw for Rodriguez.

He reaches around his neck and pulls from beneath his shirt a Marian medal, kissing it.

When Fr. Jonathan Schmeckel’s grandmother assists at a Mass he is celebrating, he can often see her weeping tears of joy. It may be that she is remembering the many Wednesday nights she collected him and his sister from their father’s house to take him to religious education classes, and the many Sunday mornings she brought him to Mass at St. John the Baptist Parish in Union Grove.

But it is just as likely that Fr. Schmeckel, when he utters the words “This is my body, given up for you,” is recalling the years in his childhood when he witnessed his grandmother’s sacrificial love for those around her. It was a love that took shape not only in her efforts to form her grandchildren in the faith, but in her tireless care for her husband as he died of Parkinson’s disease.

“She lived her faith,” Fr. Schmeckel said.

Through the sacrament of marriage, says the catechism, parents accept the privilege and responsibility of evangelizing their children. (CCC 2225) But as Jean Kelly, Gabriel Rodriguez and Fr. Schmeckel can attest, grandparents have an important role, too.

Pope Francis has often declared the influence of grandparents to be an antidote to the self-centeredness of the modern world’s “throwaway culture.”

“Grandparents need young people and young people need grandparents: they must talk to each other, they must encounter one another,” said the Holy Father on July 25, 2021, the feast of Ss. Joachim and Anne, and the Church’s first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. “Grandparents have the sap of history that rises up and gives strength to the growing tree.”

For Rodriguez, the memory of Antonia is intertwined with the meaning behind the medal around his neck. His grandmother was a deeply devout Catholic, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Milwaukee. She was originally from Puerto Rico, said Rodriguez, and she forced herself to learn English so that she could talk with her grandson.

“She was very spiritual. She always went to Mass. Always,” he said. “Every time (we talked) it was — ‘Go to church. Take communion.’”

She urged him to undergo religious education. “I’m like, OK, I’ll do it for my grandma,” said Rodriguez, smiling and rolling his eyes as he discusses his grandmother in the atrium of the Stein Center, where he is a client of the adult day services. But the lessons remain with him, and provide comfort amidst the deep grief he now feels at Antonia’s passing.

“I know she’s sitting by the Lord,” he said. “I know I have to be strong.”

Strength. Of all the many fruits born in her life by an abiding faith in God, it is this one that Jean Kelly wishes her granddaughters remember most when they think of the time they spent baking, reading and gardening with “Boppy,” as they call her. In the span of the last few years, Kelly has lost her husband and her mother. Her beloved dog also recently passed away.

“I’m sure there are more things coming my way,” she said. “I want them to know that I couldn’t have gotten through all of that without my faith.”

When Kelly’s grandmother died many years ago, she and her cousins were each allowed to select one of their grandmother’s belongings to keep as a remembrance of her. Kelly chose a small cross. Sixty years later, it is still in her possession.

“I don’t remember her coming to Mass, even though they were very religious. When I think back now, I didn’t really know a lot of their relationship with Jesus,” said Kelly. “But it’s funny — I picked that. And sixty years later, I still have it.”

She is grateful that it can be different for her and her granddaughters. She attends Mass with them and their parents every week, bringing a big bag of religious books to help keep the little ones occupied and prayerful.

She knows she is also lucky that her son and daughter-in-law are raising the children in the Catholic faith, and that her role is one of support to their efforts at home.

For Fr. Schmeckel, it was a little different — his grandmother was the one taking the lead in his formation, as his parents were not practicing Catholics. In his ministry as a priest, he encounters many parents who are deeply concerned that their adult children have fallen away from the faith, and not raising their own children in its teachings and traditions.

In these common occurrences, Fr. Schmeckel emphasizes the impact of prayer and sacrifice.

“Fasting does something — prayer and fasting. The scriptures tell us that, our faith tells us that. It’s not nothing,” he said. “Grandparents tend to have a lot of suffering as they get older, and have aches and pains and troubles with loss and sadness. They have a lot that they can offer up. I think when they really can offer that up for something productive, it doesn’t take away that suffering, but it gives some meaning to those things.”

He also urges grandparents to remember “the power of invitation” and to pray to the Holy Spirit for the prudence to know when the right time is to extend that invitation — and to remember that oftentimes, extending it does not call for words but actions.

After all, it is his grandmother’s motto that “if you live a good life and believe in your faith, your children and people around you will know God because they know you.”