Back in the day, one of the Fruits of the Spirit—kindness—went by a different name: benignity.
Now, before we go any further, we need to point out that the word benign has connotations in our culture that do not lend to a good understanding of kindness. Of course, benign is the direct opposite of the word malignant, meaning something that actively destroys. For some reason, however, the word benign has come to basically mean neutral. While it’s good news to hear the word benign in a medical diagnosis, in most cases, the tissue is removed anyway because, while it is not harming, it is not doing any good either. The true meaning of the word benign is the characteristic of actively doing good, not just being neutral.
Kindness is not neutral. Kindness is shown through actions. When we refer to someone as being kind, it is usually in response to a gesture or action. To be kind is to be prone to performing acts that are intrinsically good. This is the real meaning of the word.
As we approach the celebration of Grandparents Day on September 12, it occurs to me that one thing that grandparents are not is neutral! They can’t wait to be with their grandchildren so that they can actively spoil them with goodness and then send them on their way. In this manner, grandparents reflect God’s image, since the Church teaches that God is “absolute benignity.” (Council of Trent) In other words, it is God’s very nature to heap blessings on his children—a characteristic that is shown time and again throughout Scripture. As people made in the image and likeness of God and baptized in the Holy Spirit, we are compelled to do the same for others, actively and generously spreading kindness—benignity—and not malignancy.
Speaking of grandparents and the elderly in general, be sure to check out Pope Francis’s book, Sharing the Wisdom of Time, and its related resources that can help us to participate in a meaningful way in Grandparents Day and to learn the beauty of practicing benignity with everyone we encounter.