By Paul Gray
About 20,000 grandparents in Australia have become the prime carers of their grandchildren, most often because of drug and alcohol problems among the parents, a Pontifical Council for the Family meeting in Rome was told.
Two Australian members of the Council, Ron and Mavis Pirola from Sydney, spoke at the body’s 18th Plenary Assembly this month.
They said while the care of grandchildren is one of the great joys of grandparents, it can also be a heavy burden.
Australian law does not require grandparents to undertake the role of prime carers of grandchildren, the Pirolas said in a joint paper delivered at the meeting.
“However, out of love they do so readily often at great personal cost. It is a phenomenon that is independent of economic circumstances.
“Indeed, in some of the most disadvantaged Aboriginal communities, the care of grandchildren by grandparents is quite inspirational,” Mr and Mrs Pirola said.
An opening Mass for the Pontifical Council for the Family Assembly was held in St Peter’s Basilica, with Cardinal George Pell the principal celebrant.
The Council has 20 member couples including the Pirolas. Other experts, Consultors and representatives of family and life movements within the Church also attended the Assembly.
Demographic changes around the world have meant that the proportion of grandparents and grandchildren is at its highest level in history, the Assembly was told, and the ratio will increase further.
The stabilising influence of grandparents in children’s lives was highlighted at the Assembly. The collective wisdom and memories of grandparents are like a ‘library of values’ for society, providing a sense of continuity and hope for the future.
Grandparents can also play a crucial role in passing on the faith to the youngest generation. This role is of increasing importance in modern society and it needs to be affirmed, the Assembly was told.
Family breakdown and increasing geographical mobility – the relocation of families, often for work purposes – provide major challenges to the role of grandparents, the Assembly was told.
Respect for the elderly was also being undermined by some contemporary attitudes.
The Assembly concluded after an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.