Tuesday, July 26, 2011


The current fiscal crisis and accompanying political impasse have highlighted the imbalance in our society whihc essentially transfers wealth from younger workers to older retirees and benefits seniors (and Baby Boomer soon-to-be-seniors) at the expense of future generations, whose educational and career opoportunities are being curtailed and who are being saddled with such significant public debt. That's perhaps to be expected in a democratic political system, which rewards voters (older people who demand benefits and cling ferociously to them) and ignores non-voters (the unborn, children) and those eligible to vote but less likely to do so (young adults, the poor). It's probably human nature (i.e., a consequence of original sin) that people who have acquired privileges want to hold on to them. So it's only fair that those of us at the older end of the age spectrum, who have been beneficiaries of the system that has led to this presernt mess, should be challenged to look again at what matters to us and what that says about who we have become.

That said, today is the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hence grandparents of Jesus - a day to look at the bigger picture and celebrate and honor grandparents and other elders who have contributed - and continue to contribute - to society and the formation of future generations.

Of course, when it comes to the actual Joachim and Anne, what we know about them - even their names - is derived entirely from 2nd-century apocryphal literature, such as the Protoevangelium of James. The story of the pious but childless elderly couple, Joachim and Anne, seems modeled on the story - and (in Anne's case) even the name - of the prophet Samuel's parents, Elkanah and Hannah, in the 1st Book of Samuel.

According to the legend, one day when Joachim went to offer sacrifice in the temple, he was refused, on the argument that men without offspring were unworthy to be admitted. Deeply saddened, Joachim went away. Meanwhile, Hannah (Anne), having learned the cause of her husband’s absence of her husband, prayed to God to heal her sterility, promising (like her Old Testament namesake) to dedicate her child to the service of God. An angel revealed to her that her prayer had been heard. Joachim returned - their reunion celebrated in tradition as “the Embrace at the Golden Gate” (see picture).

In traditional extended family arrangements, grandparents often play a prominent role in family life and in the socialization of children. I was unfortunate in that I never knew my father's parents or my maternal grandfather, but very fortunate in knowing my maternal grandmother, who lived with us in our Bronx apartment until her death in September 1967, when I was 19. She spoke no English, and so I had to learn at last a minimal smattering of Italian (Sicilian dialect). She was the living link back to the family's European past that had been left behind and would otherwise have had much less influence on our very Americanized lives. she was also extremely devout, a daily communicant and candle-lighter, who passed on to me early on a great love for the Church and its ritual.

One of the ostensible hallmarks of modernity has been the decline of extended family networks - and the elevation of the narrowly defined nuclear family - father, mother, children - to normative status. But, with the corresponding post-modern decline of family life (a catastrophe symptomatic of a larger pattern of social breakdown) grandparetns have often had to step in as supplemental - and in many cases even primary - caregivers for their grandchildren. The many grandparents who have stepped up to this responsibility are performing an essential function for our society, which sadly seems to place less and less priority what is required for the formation of subsequent generations.

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