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Small gestures

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 25, 2013

A couple years ago, when my sister Mary Beth was working a part-time job at a local health club, she was asked to care for a three-month-old infant while the girl’s mother got some needed exercise.

She cradled the infant for a few minutes. Then, quietly, the child died.

Mary Beth was shocked, of course. But she is someone who is deeply grounded. She later learned that, from birth, the baby had suffered from a condition that made her susceptible to death at any moment. Her mother knew that. It was happenstance that the infant drew her last breath when my sister was holding her.

I was glad for the baby that my sister was there. We are from a large family. I am the oldest child. Mary Beth, two years younger, is the oldest girl. For more than a half century, she has held baby after baby in her arms — her brothers and sisters, her children, her grandchildren.

I think my sister is pretty special. But, really, she’s not.

rembrandt_harmensz_van_rijn_-_return_of_the_prodigal_son_-_google_art_project-x0-y1Each of us have moments like Mary Beth when we are able to touch someone’s life for the better. I don’t mean life-and-death moments. I mean, helping someone off a bus. Or offering a kind word to a friend in distress. Or listening to a co-worker go on and on about some happy event in his life.

No question, we’re all grouchy at times. But I like to recognize that we’re also sunny at times, compassionate at times. It’s a choice we have, and it’s a fact that we often make good choices.

Baseball has its Hall of Fame. So do the other sports. They’re places to honor heroes.

Among the world religions, the Catholic Church is the only one I know of with a sort of Hall of Fame. Instead of heroes, it honors saints. And, instead of a place, it’s just a list. (A month ago, church officials announced that two names will be added next April to the roll of canonized saints: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.)

There’s another way, though, of looking at saints.

Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints because they believe that every member of their faith is a saint. The Catholic Church has an even broader concept, the communion of saints, which covers all believers past and present.

Essentially, both religions recognize the reality of goodness in the world. Each of us, in our everyday lives, do good things, regardless of what religion we practice and even if we have no religion. We may not call them “saintly,” but they make the lives of others happier, fuller, richer.

History is filled with people known for the good they’ve done — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., St. Francis of Assisi, all those prophets in the Bible.

But, like my sister Mary Beth, the rest of us, in our own small ways, are heroes and saints as well.

We’re heroes and saints when we choose to be gentle instead of gruff. When we smile a greeting. When we let that car in ahead of us. When we help someone with directions. When we do a job right. When we visit a sick friend.

When we hold a baby.

Patrick T. Reardon is the author of four books including “Love Never Fails: Spiritual Reflections for Dads of All Ages.”

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