By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – Alone and afraid in the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City, she carried little money and kept to herself.
But a beggar approached her.
“I need a pair of socks. Can I have some money?”
“This is all I have,” she said sharply, handing him her $5 bill. “Tell all your friends. And don’t ask again.”
He returned and she reminded him she had no money left. He handed her $2 and said, “You gave me too much.”
“He got no Christian sweetness,” the embarrassed woman mused. “He got the socks. But what I got was a big, fat lesson.”
JoAnn Massarelli told this personal story at a Lenten series Monday at her parish, St. Paul Cathedral. Presenters and listeners were sharing their questions, answers and experiences.
The series is called, “Christ Crucified Today: Contemporary Assaults on the Sanctity of Life.” It is held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Mondays, through March 14, in St. Paul’s cenacle.
Members of a study group that gives these presentations as five-day workshops condensed them for this series, said Ms. Massarelli. With her husband, Marc Tumeinski, another group member, she belongs to the Worcester Catholic Worker community. They have lectured internationally and housed the homeless in their home. He teaches theology at Anna Maria College and Holy Apostles Seminary and does campus ministry at Worcester State University.
Matthew Brennan, a group member from St. John Parish, works for Family Lives, a home nursing service for the medically fragile. His family’s embrace of his impaired brother moved him to examine the sanctity of life.
Other group members are Susan Thomas, who is involved with the Catholic Worker in Syracuse, and Jack Yates, of St. James Parish in Stoughton. Both teach about moral issues in secular contexts; he lectured at Harvard Divinity School.
Monday’s session, “The Least Among Us,” included a Scripture about choosing life (Dt 30:11-19) and prayers about Christ’s Passion and for the intercession of St. Martin de Porres and St. Teresa of Kolkata.
Ms. Massarelli and Ms. Thomas contrasted Catholic and secular values. They noted that Catholics believe each person is made in God’s image, but sometimes treat the unborn, handicapped, addicted, etc., as less valuable.
Such people’s lives are made harder, and sometimes ended, by others’ actions, Ms. Thomas said. For example, people avoid the homeless or leave them to die on the streets, or abandon the sick, reducing their incentive to fight for life.
But through the lowly, Christ may be saying, “Could you not stay … with me for just one hour?” (Mt 26:40)
Catholics can respond by learning more, praying for the least, being conscious of their own temptations to deny the value of others and raising their voices in protest, Ms. Thomas said.
A listener asked how to address the despair of suffering people.
Ms. Massarelli spoke of people bearing guilt and said they can be helped by a priest’s pastoral care and people telling them they are loved.
“There are an awful lot of problems that we cannot fix,” Ms. Thomas added. “We can turn them over to the Lord.” She spoke of committing oneself to suffer with another, standing at the foot of Christ’s cross.
Msgr. Robert K. Johnson, cathedral rector, who attended the session, talked about introducing people to Christ by telling one’s own story and why one believes what one does.
A listener asked how to know that people really need help.
Ms. Massarelli praised efforts to seek God’s guidance about when to give.
Ms. Thomas said one could admonish a beggar not to spend a donation on drugs because “you’re valuable to God.”
Ms. Massarelli said it’s more about the giver’s response than how the receiver benefits; that is, the receiver might get spare change, but the giver gains by serving Christ.
Ms. Thomas advocated “trying to make friends with the poor – specific people.”
Ms. Massarelli encouraged listeners “to be willing to be surprised,” and shared her encounter with the beggar seeking socks.
“Jesus is in the homeless today … the sick today … the child today,” teaching as he taught people of his day, Ms. Thomas said.
“I think all of this is such important material for discussion,” St. Paul’s parishioner Jennifer Vaughan said after the session. “I don’t think any one of us is untouched by a direct experience” of someone like those presenters described.
Gathering this way as Catholics provides an opportunity to “reflect on our response” and “how will it be different?” she said. “We need it to be different.”