Rory Fitzgerald talks to Catherine Wiley, the entrepreneur who is inspiring the faithful to pass Catholicism on to their grandchildren
Catherine Wiley grew up in County Mayo, one of a family of 10. She knew only one of her own grandparents, but she was “very close to him, although he died before I was six”.
“He read Bible stories to me,” she recalls. “My first image of prayer was our family rosary, everyone kneeling down in the golden light of the tilly lamps and candles. My grandfather made me feel very special. He had that gift. There were 10 of us, and we all thought we were his favourite.”
Like many of her generation, Catherine left Ireland aged 15 to go to England in search of work: “It was quite a culture shock. I arrived with no idea where I would stay or where I would work. I got my first job in Wall’s bacon factory by lying about my age. The factory arranged digs for me. I was a very enthusiastic worker and soon was promoted.
“At first, I was a typical Irish immigrant, going to Irish dances and Mass on Sunday, But before long I fell away from the practice of the faith. Later, I began doing PR for Island Records, just as the Swinging Sixties were kicking off in London.”
At 21 she met the love of her life, Stewart. “It was love at first sight,” she says. “He came through a doorway and was transfixed. He asked me to marry him the next day.
“After our first child arrived, I began to seriously re-examine my religious commitment. After our child was baptised a Catholic I began to attend Mass every week in London.”
The newlyweds began a travel business that soon became remarkably successful.
“At first we operated tours around the Greek islands,” she says, “but soon we branched into children’s camps, which proved very successful and spread across the UK.”
Life in London was hectic and the couple decided to buy a weekend retreat. By chance, they ended up going to see a farmhouse in Walsingham.
“We had no idea that it was a medieval shrine, a holy place. Built in the 13th century, it had been a friary until the Reformation, after which time a farmhouse was built inside the ruins. We were the first Catholics in that house since the Reformation. The word went out: ‘There are Catholics in the friary!’
“As a child, I always had a priest or a nun friend, inspiring or motivating me, someone who had singled me out for special attention. I always had a great affinity for priests and nuns.” And upon moving to Walsingham, she met Fr Philip Greystone, who was to become an inspiration for the Catholic Grandparents Association (CGA).
The Wileys’ business grew from strength to strength. From humble beginnings, they eventually came to have about 1,000 employees and a turnover of many millions of pounds. Catherine regularly travelled around the world with work.
“Once my husband and I were staying in a luxury hotel in India and we saw a poor woman sweeping the grass. We decided, on the spur of the moment, that we would give her all the money we had with us. It was a modest amount for us, but for her it was life-changing. From that moment I made a decision that wherever I went I would try to give and to do something useful for somebody. That became my motto: ‘If I can only help one person.’ I would go to Mother Teresa’s homes or SOS shelters and ask them what they needed. Sometimes it might be school uniforms for a class of children. Other times it might be 300 new mattresses for an orphanage.”
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, she asked a local priest what she could do for him. “He replied: ‘We need a church. We don’t have a church. I have the land, and I have the wood, and I have the plans.’ He showed me the blueprints, and a pile of wood in the yard, and I asked: ‘How much is this going to cost?’ He said maybe $10,000 to $15,000. I said: ‘I’ll help you to build the church.’
“Great tears just fell on to his little brown arms. He said: ‘I have been praying day and night for seven years for this.’ He also had an orphanage with 120 children run by two Canadian nuns. So I began to send support to Cambodia.”
After the plight of the Romanian orphans came to light, Catherine set up her own charity to help. She would drive from England to Romania seven or eight times a year to bring supplies for a half-way house she had founded to reintegrate children into society. Soon her charity work began to become her primary focus in life.
“All these little things I had been doing were stepping stones. I began to realise that our company was God-given. Because I had this powerful company I could get things done. Then, one day, I was in church in Walsingham. It was Our Lady’s birthday and I had just become a grandparent. I was wondering what I could give my granddaughter for her birthday and I had this idea to give her a pilgrimage. It would delight her: a grandparents’ pilgrimage, a day of faith and fun.”
The first event took place in Walsingham in 2002. Then, upon returning to her native Mayo, Catherine organised a grandparents’ pilgrimage in Knock in 2006, which 5,000 people attended. Cardinal Séan Brady blessed it and, at Catherine’s request, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a prayer for grandparents in 2006, the first of its kind in the history of the Church. At the 2007 Knock pilgrimage some 10,000 grandparents attended.
“Soon the grandparents’ pilgrimages became my main focus,” she explains. “My family said: ‘For God’s sake, give it up!’ But I wouldn’t. I had seen the response of the grandparents and recognised the need in them and in myself. For example, I didn’t have any answers when a member of my family turned around to me and said: ‘I’m not going to baptise my children.’ I didn’t know what to do. I had never thought I would have a situation where my children would reject the faith or that I’d have to worry about my grandchildren’s faith.”
Catherine founded the Catholic Grandparents Association in 2009. “An astonishing 14,000 people attended its launch in Knock. Since then we’ve had events in England, Scotland, Australia, America and Tanzania. However, I think being asked to speak at [the International Eucharistic Congress in] Dublin and [the World Family Congress] in Milan really marked the coming of age of the association. It showed that the importance of grandparents is now recognised at the highest levels of the Church.
“Cardinal Dolan in New York said he wants to see the CGA active in his archdiocese. Likewise, Cardinal Pell of Sydney, Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Daet of the Philippines all said they want it in their dioceses. I was overwhelmed by the extraordinary interest in the CGA. I was approached by people from all over the world who want to set up a branch. Ordinary grandparents anywhere in the world can do so easily. All they need to do is to contact us and we’ll give them materials and advice on getting started.
“The faith of our forefathers is hanging in the balance, especially in the western world. Grandparents have a special role to play in passing it on to their grandchildren. If we don’t act now, it may be too late, as quite often our own children have little knowledge of the faith. I truly believe that grandparents are being called at this moment in history.
“Our pilgrimages have led the way. Everything flows form the pilgrimages: communal prayer, sharing and empowerment. We try to make the liturgy as beautiful as possible. The association helps grandparents explore issues like how to pass on the faith when there’s divorce in the family, how to cope when the in-laws want different things, what to do if grandchildren are not baptised or if your children have become disenchanted with the faith.
“You can’t undermine the parents. You’re there to support the parents, not to undermine them. You’ve got to be very sensitive, thoughtful and unobtrusive, knowing when to give advice and when to step back. Sometimes it’s simply having the courage to say grace before meals, or to read a Bible story at bedtime, or say a prayer when you’re tucking them in.
“Branches meet, pray, say the Pope’s prayer and then have a chat. Sometimes people will have special intentions to pray for, then they might discuss a topic – for example, how the Church has changed since we were young or how to organise a grandparents day in school. It’s a structured support group for grandparents, but prayer is always an essential part of it. Groups normally meet once a month, sometimes after Mass to make it easy to attend.
“Our faith is so beautiful. There’s nobody in the world who can argue with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
He is the greatest teacher and most loving person. We must not fail to pass on his message to our grandchildren.”
For more information, visit Catholicgrandparentsassociation.com, phone 00 353 (0)98 24877 or email info@CatholicGrandparentsAssociation.com.
The 10th National Pilgrimage for Grandparents to Walsingham takes place on July 22. The chief celebrant will be Bishop John Hine, patron of CGA England. There will be a Grandparents and Families Day at Aylesford Priory on July 14, and the Carin grandparents pilgrimage is on August 19 at the shrine of Our Lady, Carfin, Scotland.