Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
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Columns

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Father Emmanuel Byaruhanga used to ride his bicycle close to 30 miles each way to a trading center to sell bananas to pay for his school fees. Born and raised in rural western Uganda, Father Emmanuel said that children in his parents’ parish still fetch drinking water from a stream that animals drink from and defecate near.

Sometimes, he said, when children are thirsty enough, they don’t bother bringing the water back to their school or home to boil it.

Maybe you’ve heard a story like this before, or perhaps you are aware that this is reality for some children in the world. Maybe you thought about children like this when you dropped coins into your Rice Bowl from Catholic Relief Services in the last few days.

Will you think about these children again before Lent next year?

It’s always inspiring to meet people like Father Emmanuel, who have stared down all of the obstacles in their way and made something of themselves. He is now a doctoral student in Nairobi, Kenya, and he dreams of working in educational administration and planning, he said.

But I was also incredibly inspired by the people in whose living room we were sitting when I met Father Emmanuel: Jane Holler and Dan Marecki of Milford. The couple, members of St. Gabriel Parish, have helped sponsor six water projects in western Uganda through their nonprofit, Uganda Farmers, Inc. While Father Emmanuel works with Jane and Dan as their eyes on the ground in the areas where water pumps are being put in, it’s due to the passion and fundraising efforts of Jane and Dan that clean water is now freely flowing to so many people.

And while the couple have changed the lives of countless people in rural Uganda with these water projects, including the latest water pump that was installed at a medical center, they said over and over again that they are the lucky ones.

“We’ve received more blessings from the people we’ve met than what we have given them,” Dan told me, adding that they have visited the country a number of times to see the finished projects. “It would have been absolutely impossible to be involved with something like this except for the grace of God,” he said.

Being involved in this work has renewed their faith, Dan told me. My favorite phrase from our conversation was when he said, “The love of God flows through us to 8,000 miles away.”

As Lent comes to end, I want to think more about ways I can be more like Jane and Dan, and not just be satisfied with dropping a dollar in the basket on Sundays or my spare change in a Rice Bowl 40 days a year. While I may not find myself in a position to found a nonprofit at this point in my life, I can follow Jane and Dan’s example of action.

Earlier this year, I wrote about making spiritual resolutions at the beginning of a New Year to accompany my desires to be fit, eat healthier or pick up new hobbies or skills in 2017. After meeting Jane, Dan and Father Emmanuel, I know I want giving back to be a part of my spiritual resolutions this year, too. I can support the mission of Ugandan Farmers by running in their annual 5K fundraiser; I can find out what volunteer opportunities are available in my church; I can listen to God’s call for me to do more for my community.

Jane and Dan’s journey down this road to founding Uganda Farmers, Inc. began with a conversation with a visiting priest. How will God speak to me this year and call me to action? How will God call you?

ANNA JONES is a writer who lives in New Haven. She and her husband are members of the St. Thomas More Chapel and Center Community at Yale University.

cram parent child beach web

The call came years ago on a raw afternoon in early spring.

The woman on the other end of the phone introduced herself as a writer. She explained that Parenting magazine had hired her to write a story about how to prevent spoiled children, and she wanted to interview me on the topic. She’d been given my name through a convoluted series of contacts, none of whom had ever met me or my children. How did she know my kids weren’t spoiled?

The interview was fascinating. The writer presented me with eight specific scenarios involving children who were not getting what they wanted. I had to describe how I would handle each situation. The writer planned to conduct similar interviews with parents and experts around the country.

Months later, the November issue of Parenting landed in my mailbox. Turning quickly to page 78, I discovered that the entire article revolved around six people who were listed as national experts on how to avoid spoiled children. I was one of the six.

Seriously? A national expert? My professional background was with IBM. In college, I was a cafeteria ticket puncher; in the summer, I stuffed mail-order steak knives into envelopes. In what universe did this qualify me as an expert?

Friends and family had a good laugh about the magazine article. Then we returned to everyday life.

One morning a year or two later, the magazine article came to mind as I picked up my easygoing 4-year-old from nursery school. Victoria greeted me with her sweet hug and kiss, then ran off to play. I asked her to get her jacket.

She looked up with those soft brown eyes and declared, “No.”

I know this sounds crazy, but this had never happened. Victoria was always so compliant. I called to her again, and again she said no. I was stunned. I’d dealt with plenty of defiance from my other children, but this was new territory for Victoria.

I walked over to her, picked her up, carried her to the coat hooks, plopped her down and instructed her to grab her jacket. She refused. I insisted. She refused. And then, to my astonishment, she hurled herself to the floor, kicked her little hands and feet and began wailing. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

By this time, a small crowd had gathered. Normally, when a recalcitrant child throws a public tantrum, other parents offer sympathy. Not this time. The parents who gathered were actually cheering — enthusiastically. “I’m so glad your child isn’t perfect!” one mother laughed. “It makes me feel so much better!”

In the end, a teacher “helped” Victoria get her coat.

Victoria did not have another tantrum for five years.

Her tantrum reminded me of another story. Years ago, there was an elementary school in California located on a busy street. For safety, the playground was surrounded by a tall fence. A group of parents petitioned the school board to remove the fence, however, claiming that it limited their children’s freedom and creativity. Astoundingly, the board complied.

An immediate change occurred at recess: the children began huddling in the center of the playground because they were frightened by the traffic. The fence hadn’t shackled their freedom; it had given them the freedom to play.

The fence was reinstalled and the children again played freely.

And thus it is with discipline. Boundaries and discipline do not limit a child; they keep the child safe and give tangible evidence of how deeply the child is loved.

The day will come when I must give an account for my life. I hope I can say that I loved my children unconditionally, trained them in holiness and led them into a relationship with God. If I can say these things, perhaps I will have become an expert.

M. REGINA CRAM is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

dunn resurrection web

During Jesus’ ministry, a group of Sadducees attempted to trap him with a hypothetical question. If a person had more than one spouse on earth, who would be the one true spouse in heaven?

We know their inquiry was a trap rather than sincere because the Scripture passage begins: “Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus … ”

If those guys did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, then why did they bother asking the question? It’s a moot point. If there is no life after death, then — let me see if I can phrase this properly — who cares?!

This episode reminds us that skepticism about life after death is not exclusively a modern phenomenon. It just seems that way because a small minority of secular elites has commandeered so much power and influence in our culture these days. Their views dominate many facets of society: the news media, education and the entertainment industry, just to name a few.

Once again, it’s the basic clash of world views: atheistic vs. theistic; secular vs. spiritual. Did God create mankind or did mankind create God? (That is, did mankind, during a primitive era marked by fear and ignorance, invent the concept we call “God”?)

The secular view is present even in many religious organizations. A Christian theologian, Professor Roy W. Hoover, states this view with stark clarity: “The idea of resurrection is embedded in an ancient world view that is outdated in a scientific age. The belief in a general resurrection of the dead simply cannot stand as an article of faith.”

But without it, the heart of Christianity is removed. Without a hope for resurrection, the primary purpose of the faith is gone. There is nothing left, except to ask the question the Sadducees should have asked — who cares?!

St. Paul understood the importance of belief in the resurrection. He wrote in 1 Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, and if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

If there is no life after death, then it just doesn’t matter. Years ago, I was an atheist and a drunk. I’m not very proud of my actions back then, but given my world view, my behavior was actually quite logical and consistent. If we cease to exist at the moment of death, then life is ultimately meaningless, so why not have a well-balanced breakfast of Cocoa Puffs and vodka? No matter what we do now, in 100 years or less we’ll all be gone, so — let me see if I can phrase this properly — who cares?!

Faith in resurrection and hope for life after death are the heart of Christianity. It’s why we celebrate Easter, which is the answer to the skeptic’s question, “Who cares?” Jesus cares. He cares a lot! And Jesus offered his life to ensure that we can live forever.

BILL DUNN is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.

pisani traffic apr webIt was late Friday afternoon, much too late to be leaving for New Hampshire on a trip that would take us four and a half hours, but most likely five, depending on the number of times we’d have to stop for the dog ... or me.

Interstate 91 was already heavy with cars heading north for a weekend of skiing. I left work early, thinking I’d have a clear shot through Massachusetts, Vermont and then New Hampshire, but I was wrong. Still miles from Springfield, we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

“What the heck is holding us up?” I grumbled to my wife.

“There must be an accident,” she said.

The middle lane was barely moving, and everyone was frantically trying to pass an old Cadillac that was crawling along. I could feel my blood pressure rising and tension tightening my stomach. I finally made my move and pulled out to pass.

“Who’s driving 40-miles-an-hour?”

When I got beside the Cadillac, I was about to press on the horn, roll down the window and deliver a few choice words ... until I saw a bumper sticker on the car that said, “Help America — Pray the Rosary.” And dangling from the rearview mirror were rosary beads. I felt like a hot-headed fool. In that moment, I said a silent Hail Mary for the older woman driver, who was clearly anxious as speeding motorists raced past.

Our driving styles differed, but we were kindred spirits. I have the same bumper sticker on the back of my SUV, along with rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror. I realize now you can’t judge someone by her driving abilities — and I’m sure Jesus doesn’t.

I’m also sure the bumper sticker on my car leaves people puzzled. When they see me weaving in and out at rush hour, they probably snicker, “Pray the rosary? Help America? ... Help yourself, buddy!” OK, I confess that I have occasional problems with patience, and the more appropriate bumper sticker might be the one that says, “No Jesus, no peace.”

Nevertheless, I’m proud of my bumper sticker because it’s a way to give witness. As Catholics, we’re called upon to give witness in ways large and small. I’m inspired by the hope that someone somewhere will read the bumper sticker and realize that America can only be saved by prayer — not by politicians, the media, celebrities or another law.

At work, I have a menagerie of religious statues on my computer station, including St. Joseph, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Guadalupe and a bobblehead of Pope Francis. In case of spiritual emergency, there’s also a bottle of holy water from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Perhaps that’s excessive, but I believe in pushing the limits.

My co-workers may look at me suspiciously and think I’m a religious fanatic who wants to impose his views on them. But you never know how or when you’ll plant the seed in another person who sees your cross necklace, prayer book or rosary beads. Those seemingly inconsequential things can have a profound effect that we’re unaware of.

While we still have religious freedom of expression in America, we should take advantage of it, because there’s an aggressive and growing movement of people who would deny that right to Catholics.

Moreover, we shouldn’t be afraid to let people know we’re believers, whether it’s on the job, at the dinner table or on the ski slopes. Evangelizing can be doing something as simple as saying, “God bless you” or telling people in distress that you’ll pray for them.

We’re all called to evangelize, and when you open yourself up to Christ’s grace and he enlists you as a worker in the vineyard, he’ll use you countless times during the day to plant the seed in people he wants to reach. You may not see the fruits of your labors until the next life, but you can be sure the results will defy your expectations.

So take advantage of every opportunity to bring Christ to people at work, at home ... and in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

JOE PISANI of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.

SPIRITUAL FITNESS

jones taking notes 2 webIt’s the stray cough from your neighbor or the crying baby in the back row. Sometimes, it’s the fidgeting toddler in front of you or the couple whispering two seats over.

We’ve all been there: distracted at Mass.

Whether it’s the fault of another congregant or the incessant nagging of your grocery list in your head, we have all experienced moments of distraction during Mass, especially during the homily. Full disclosure, I thought of this column idea during the homily at Mass this week.

When I first became aware of just how distracted I had become, my husband Matt suggested a trick he had learned in his divinity school studies at Yale. He said rather than fighting the distraction, follow the distracted line of thought, pray about it and resolve it. For example, if it’s a grocery list that your mind is making, take a moment and pray in gratitude for being able to afford groceries and resolve to come back to the list at another time. If it’s worrying about cleaning the kitchen before an evening dinner party, take a moment to pray in thanksgiving for being able to host said dinner party and for the friendship of your guests.

This follow-the-distraction-in-prayer trick certainly works, and I’ve found it to be helpful to acknowledge my distractions and quickly move past them in Mass. But author Matthew Kelly also gave me another idea that I find just as useful, if not more so, especially during a homily. When I remember — this week I did not — I slip a small notebook and pen into my purse and quietly slip it out after the Gospel reading and I take notes.

As a newspaper reporter, I’m rather quick at taking notes, but I don’t spend the entire sermon scribbling away as I would during an interview or at a press conference. Rather, during homilies, I just write down key points or phrases that really jump out at me while the priest is talking. I don’t need to remember the football joke, but it is nice to jot down the true gems that I want to remember throughout the week.

This practice, albeit a little strange, has actually helped me walk away with — and better remember — themes from homilies and the Gospels. When I remember my notebook, I’m more likely to remember what was talked about during Mass and think about it more often during the week.

In early December, I was reminded by a visiting priest to St. Thomas More in New Haven that true joy comes from God and we are called to relish God’s blessings and not be too focused on ourselves. The visiting priest from New Britain gave us homework: try to make other people happy and joyful in God’s grace. That’s quite an assignment, but writing it down helped me to think more about pointing out God’s blessings, rather than focusing on negativity in conversations with friends and family during the week. I think without my notebook, and the act of writing down that assignment, I wouldn’t have remembered the assignment past Communion.

It’s a habit I’m still learning, but I’ve brought a notebook often enough to miss it when I forget it at this point. And I’m hoping to continue the practice throughout this new year. After all, if I’m only in Mass one hour a week, shouldn’t I make the most of it?

ANNA JONES is a writer who lives in New Haven. She and her husband are members of the St. Thomas More Chapel and Center Community at Yale University.

SPIRITUAL FITNESS

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There are many awesome teachings in Christian theology true forgiveness of sins and eternal life in heaven, just to name a couple. But the one teaching that’s had the biggest impact on my life is this: It is possible to love a person without necessarily liking him or her.

I remember years ago when I first heard Jesus’ command: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” I immediately thought to myself, “Are you kidding, Jesus? How can I love people who are total jerks and cause me so much trouble?”

Jesus is God, and therefore all-knowing, but sometimes I wondered if he had lost sight of the fact that during a typical day, I had to deal with so many unlovable bozos.

The problem is that the English word “love” implies affection. We say we love ice cream or puppies or sunsets. We can’t comprehend loving something unless we also are fond of it. And this goes especially for people. So, Jesus’ command to love the people we don’t like seems impossible.

The New Testament was written in Greek, and in Greek there are multiple words that are translated into the English word “love.” The word Jesus used when he said, “Love your enemies,” is the verb form of agape. This is divine love, the kind of love Christ showed toward us when he paid the price for our sins on the cross.

Here is one simple definition of agape love: truly wanting the best for the other person.

Now, imagine this scenario: There’s a guy at work, let’s call him Fred, in the Accounting Department, and Fred is obnoxious and rude. He gossips about people behind their backs, and lies to their faces in person. No one knows why he hasn’t been fired for sexual harassment because of all the lewd things he says. Most co-workers would not shed a tear if something terrible happened to Fred.

Everybody dislikes Fred, including you. But instead of just grumbling about Fred and secretly daydreaming that he gets fired, try this instead: Truly wish the best for Fred. In his case, it means he needs to have a total change of heart, put his faith in God, apologize to those he’s offended and drastically alter his behavior. It is possible to genuinely want the best for Fred without being fond of him. And if you’re able to change your attitude toward Fred and pray that God will bless him, you are following Jesus’ command to love him. And nothing says you have to like him.

Isn’t that liberating?

When I first heard about this concept, I thought of the people I really didn’t care for. It took a while, but I reached a point where I honestly could say that I wanted the best for them. For many of these people, just as with our fictitious Fred, the “best” meant they needed to turn to God, repent for some lousy behavior and start treating people differently in the future. I began to pray that God would bless them.

And you know what? The more I prayed for them, the less I disliked them. Also, the more I prayed for these people, the more I realized that I was not exactly Little Miss Sunshine in the way I treated others.

Liking someone is based on feelings, which we can’t control. But loving someone — true Christian agape love — is an act of the will.

Give this liberating concept a try. It may help you cope with all the Freds in your life. Or better yet, it may help you stop being such a Fred yourself.

BILL DUNN is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.

WORK LIFE

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The expensive fitness-tracker watch I gave my wife Sandy for her birthday was on the bureau instead of her wrist. Was she abandoning our conjugal commitment to physical fitness? Maybe I should have given her a turbo-charged German vacuum cleaner instead. Or tapped into my flagging 401(k) and bought her a MINI Cooper. After all, it was a big birthday.

Once upon a time, this woman was obsessed with surpassing the American Heart Association’s recommended goal of walking 10,000 steps a day, and very often she tallied more than 20,000 steps by the time she put her head on the pillow. I don’t know how she did it, but I’m convinced she was motivated by an intense desire to outperform me.

Sometimes I’d find her running in place in the kitchen; other times, I’d go to bed and she’d still be exercising downstairs. For my part, I made an effort to put in as many steps during the workday so that I could satisfy the demands of my tracker by walking at least 250 steps an hour. I just hoped the boss wasn’t wondering about all that physical movement when I should have been chained to my work station.

OK, I admit that we’re both a little obsessive when it comes to exercise, but the experts say it adds years to your life.

One report I read from Dr. Oz — or maybe it was Dr. Phil or Dr. Seuss — said that regular exercise cuts the risk of colon cancer by 60 percent, the risk of Alzheimer’s by 40 percent, the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure by 40 percent and the risk of type II diabetes by 58 percent, along with preventing breast cancer and strokes. So why was her fitness watch on the bureau, instead of wrapped around her wrist so she could register her steps, heart rate, physical exertion, calories, stairs and miles?

“I’m tired of being a slave to a fitness tracker,” she said. “There are more important things in life.”

“What’s more important than taking care of your body?” I asked. The answer came to mind immediately — taking care of your soul. Your body dies. Your soul is immortal. Or to paraphrase Jesus, “Don’t worry about those who can harm the body, worry about those who can harm the soul.”

Can you imagine what saints we’d become if we put as much time and effort into spiritual exercise? My friends who wear fitness trackers are such fanatics they can’t resist boasting about their weekly progress. I wonder, however, whether they pay the same attention to their souls.

Not to boast — I’m boasting — but during one of my productive weeks, I logged 859 active minutes, 63.04 miles,133,446 steps, 23,497 calories and 158 floors. The thought of praying 859 minutes never crossed my mind. And what about spending an hour in eucharistic adoration or saying five decades of the rosary for 20 minutes or, most important of all, going to daily Mass?

With a program of regular spiritual fitness, I bet we could cut the risk of depression and anxiety by 75 percent, marital discord by 70 percent, family unrest by 65 percent, workplace agita by 63 percent, unhappiness by 85 percent, impurity by 80 percent and swearing by 95 percent.

Training our souls is far more important than exercising our bodies. Our bodies decay and die, but our souls last forever, so let’s do what’s necessary to get them in shape.

If we could see the condition of our souls, many of us would be shocked. I once read about a man who had a near-death experience and got a review of his life in intimate detail and suddenly realized he’d done the bare minimum for Christ. All that really had concerned him was making money, getting ahead and being a success in the eyes of the world. You might say he was a 98-pound spiritual weakling. The experience changed his life and his priorities.

I started to rethink my own goals. Instead of getting up at 4:25 a.m. to exercise before heading to the train for work, I got up at 4:25 and, in the silence of the morning, began to meditate and tried to listen to the still, small voice of God. I took out my rosary beads and said the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. On the way to the train station, I said the Joyful and Luminous Mysteries of the rosary. While I was on the train for the hourand-45-minute ride into the city, I said the Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries in addition to praying the Divine Office on my iPad.

At lunch, I crossed the street and went to midday Mass at St. Agnes. It certainly helped me during the workday. Whenever the challenges of the job or my co-workers or clients got a little too demanding and threatened to push me into emotional crisis, I said a prayer for peace ... and it was restored. The benefits were certainly there.

Cardio and weight training may help your body, but it’s good to remember the spiritual exercises that benefit your soul: prayer, fasting, meditation, sacrifices, Mass, eucharistic adoration and the rosary. I still exercise regularly, but now I’m more concerned about cracking a sweat ... spiritually.

JOE PISANI of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.

cram angel statueYOUR LIFE, PARENTING

Childish prayers

A child’s prayer is the ultimate in sweetness, isn’t it? Yeah, right. Like the time my 3-year-old prayed for her baby sister to move in with the neighbors, preferably for a very long time. Years ago when I misplaced my wedding ring, my young son confidently prayed to find it, then whispered his back-up plan. “That’s OK, Mama. You get married again, get another ring.”

Our children have asked God to make the tooth fairy less forgetful, turn the green beans into chocolate and send all mosquitoes to Rhode Island. Five-year-old Meredith once thanked God for the baby’s slimy belly button, and asked him to make sure there are no frogs in heaven. Skip prayed for quadruplet brothers. We drew the line when one nameless child asked God if he could please make the teacher sick for the rest of the school year.

Children’s prayers are not always sweet, or even kind, but they are genuine pleas from kids who understand that God cares about the details of their lives.

Let me tell you about one such plea.

As a young mom, I had a pen pal named Rosemary in Philadelphia. Rosemary wrote hilarious letters about her family’s escapades, giving me much-needed respite from my daily routine.

Shortly before we began corresponding, Rosemary and her husband John applied to adopt a baby from Peru. They had recently visited that country, where they’d fallen in love with a 5-month-old baby boy. Returning to Philadelphia, they completed the necessary paperwork to adopt him — or so they thought. Months later, they returned to South America to bring the baby home, but the Peruvian government refused to release the child. Heartbroken, John and Rosemary again returned to the States, leaving the baby in a Peruvian orphanage. In their hearts, this child was already their son. They had named him Anthony.

Our children prayed fervently for Anthony, and each update from Rosemary propelled them to pray still more. “Please, God,” the children would plead, “please bring Baby Anthony home so he can be with his family.”

We began praying in March. April came and went, then May. Around the first of June, John and Rosemary were told to expect Anthony by midsummer, but June and July passed and Anthony was still in Peru. In August, they marked Anthony’s first birthday from thousands of miles away.

And still we prayed. “Why doesn’t God bring Baby Anthony home so he can be with his family?” my 4-year-old asked often. I didn’t know. I could only assure her that God loved Baby Anthony even more than we did.

The weather turned cool. September passed, then October. “Don’t you think God will bring him home for Thanksgiving?” my 6-year-old asked.

But on Thanksgiving Day, we were still praying for Baby Anthony to come home.

The morning after Thanksgiving, I strolled to the mailbox, where I found a letter in Rosemary’s distinctive handwriting. I ripped open the envelope and read, “He’s home. Baby Anthony is home.”

I could not see the rest of the words through my tears. I flew into the house shouting, “He’s here! He’s here! He’s here!” The children dropped what they were doing and gathered around to read about John and Rosemary’s final trip to Peru. This time, they brought home their cherished little boy.

Our prayers that evening brimmed with joy. “Thank you for bringing Baby Anthony home to be with his family!” the children prayed. The 7-year-old blurted out, “Hey! Anthony was home for Thanksgiving! We just didn’t know it yet.”

Anthony’s story has a happy ending, but sometimes God’s plan does not match our own. Sometimes God tells us, “No, my child, I can’t give you what you want because I love you so much.” It’s not easy explaining this to a child. It’s not easy understanding it ourselves.

But prayer is so much more than asking for things; prayer fosters a relationship with God. And so, generation after generation, we bring our children to prayer, often assisted by grandparents, godparents and caregivers. Together, we teach our children to trust their Heavenly Father whose love is everlasting, whether he gives us what we want or not.

M. REGINA CRAM is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

bible study 862994 fbOne summer in my college years, I worked the morning shift at a local gym to earn some extra money. Each day when I arrived at 4:25 a.m., without fail, the regulars were already there, waiting for me.

I was always in awe of those dedicated few, and while they never said anything, I know they were not thrilled when I showed up at 4:31, a minute after the gym was supposed to open, because I hadn’t biked there fast enough or had hit the snooze button.

These people were dedicated to their physical health in a way that many of us can’t understand. I know I certainly can’t, and I even raced on a triathlon team in college. There are plenty of gym rats and exercise nuts out there, but how many do you know who arrive at the gym at a time many of us still consider the middle of the night?

When I stop to think about my own habits — personal fitness, spiritual fitness, diet, exercise and such — those early morning risers come to mind. I’m not thinking of rushing to the gym in the wee hours of the morning anytime soon, but it does make me stop and wonder about how I can be more disciplined, and what areas I maybe should pay more attention to.

There are examples galore of ways to aid in physical well-being at the start of a new year. Just ask the membership staff at the local gym what their favorite time of year is. But, I would guess that church attendance doesn’t surge the same way every January. Are there ways we can exercise more of our spiritual health in the new year?

If Sunday church attendance is already a habit, there are plenty of other ways to engage more fully in our spiritual lives this coming year. It could be making it to a daily Mass or special prayer service once a week. Maybe, for some, it’s getting to Mass on all of the holy days of obligation in 2017. Maybe it’s adding another five- or 10-minute period of prayer time to our day. Maybe it’s cracking open a Bible more often, or, as in my case, really, at all. Maybe it’s considering a return to confession.

Advent and Lent are common periods to set the spiritual reset button, try something new or engage in an activity or fasting that will bring us closer to God. Is there something you can put on your resolution list as an addendum this year? Or something that can be a new addition altogether? Is there something that probably shouldn’t wait until the month and a half before Easter?

At the start of 2016, my husband and I decided we were going to make resolutions that catered to three aspects of our health: emotional, physical and spiritual. We decided to make a poster with a list of things we wanted to accomplish in the year, and we weren’t going to shy away from any idea, no matter how unlikely it seemed. A tougher list would just push us harder to follow through, we said.

Well, it seems even making the poster was too ambitious, because I found the poster board in our closet the other day. It’s still blank.

But that poster board is actually going to make it to the wall this year, and with a little luck, hard  work and some of that channeled energy from those summer gym rats, we may be able to look at it again a year from  now knowing that we at least accomplished our spiritual health goals for 2017.

Anna Jonesis a writer who lives in New Haven. She and her husband are members of the St. Thomas More Chapel and Center community at Yale University.

beggars 1233291 640When I arrive for work at the Chrysler Building, a group of panhandlers is standing across the street outside St. Agnes Church, waiting for handouts from people leaving morning Mass. One fellow is in a wheelchair, another has a cane and another has his Starbucks Venti-sized cup held out so you can toss in some coins, or, even better, a dollar bill.

By midday, the morning shift is gone and there’s a new group at the doorway, which includes a woman in walker, a man with a sign that says he can’t work because of a disability and a fellow who just smiles at everyone and greets them with, “Hi, buddy, have a nice day. Can you spare some change?”

Panhandlers, or, to use the more biblical term, “beggars,” provoke a lot of anger in modern America. A few times when I was waiting for the morning train, I gave a buck to a guy who had a sign that said he was an out-of-work veteran — and my fellow commuters tore into me. They said I was a fool. They insisted the so-called hard-luck vet probably had a bigger house than I do and was driving a BMW, while I have to get by in a Toyota with 100,000 miles on the odometer.

They scoffed and said I had committed a grave offense: “encouraging scam artists.” It was a lot of abuse for the alleged crime of handing someone a dollar bill. (Just to set the record straight, I’m no paragon of charitable giving.)

Maybe the guy wasn’t down on his luck, but you can’t conduct a needs test every time someone asks for a handout. I’m also convinced our society has a serious moral blindness if begging provokes reasonably well-off people to anger.

A friend who teaches at a Catholic high school recently took his class to the inner city to do volunteer work, and the response of some students to the disadvantaged people they met was unsettling: They should get jobs. They should stop spending their money on drugs. They’ve been on welfare for generations.

Pope Francis has been vocal about the importance of charity. During one audience at St. Peter’s, he said, “When going down the street, we cross a person in need or a poor man comes knocking at the door of our house ... in these instances what is my reaction? Do I turn away? Do I move on? Or do I stop to talk and take an interest? If you do this, there will always be someone who says, ‘This one is crazy, talking to a poor person.’”

Christ was pretty explicit about giving. One thing he never said to beggars was, “You’re a fraud. You have no business asking these hard-working people for money.” (And he didn’t obsess over whether they had a flat-screen TV and a six-pack of Heineken in the refrigerator.)

However, Christ did say, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”

All around the city, you’ll meet people in need, lying on the sidewalks in sleeping bags, wandering the streets with no shoes and rummaging through recycling bins and trash cans. People who are down on their luck.

In New York, it has become such an epidemic that exasperated city officials have suggested a solution: If you stop giving to them, they’ll go away. Last year, one of the tabloids fueled the debate by writing a story about a panhandler who, with his dog, made $200 an hour and went home to a rent-controlled apartment.

We live in a world where there’s clearly an inequitable distribution of wealth, as Pope Francis often says. Very often, those of us who have enough want more and think that we’ve been unfairly denied when we don’t get it. Even if you factor in the need to save for retirement and pay for college educations, many of us still have sufficient resources to live good lives and give charitably.

What I’ve noticed is that greedy people — in every income bracket — are never satisfied with what they have. Studies on philanthropy often show that the per capita rate of giving is generally the lowest in states where the per capita income is the highest. Part of the problem is that we’re too busy comparing ourselves with people who have more than us. If we compared ourselves to people who have less than us, we might be more compassionate — and charitable.

This much we can be sure of: God is love and God is all about giving with a cheerful heart. And always remember that he’ll reward us for what we give to others, far beyond our wildest dreams.

Joe Pisani of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.

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