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Guest Column: Only love to gain

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

God has blessed me with many loving, supportive relationships among my fellow Ursuline Sisters, family and friends.

As we prepare to mark the Oct. 4 feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the lover of all creation, it also seems fitting to celebrate another special relationship, a bond that has spanned more than 16 years, bringing me affection, joy and a steadfast presence amidst many life changes.

My cat, Katie, came into my life as a tiny, orphaned kitten when I was stationed in the military in Belgium. After I was discharged, she made the trip back home to Cincinnati, bravely enduring a nine-hour flight and 10 hours in the car. As I readjusted to civilian life, changed jobs and moved several times, Katie took everything in stride. When I entered my religious community in 1999, my Sisters lovingly accepted Katie, too.

I’ve learned many lessons from Katie. Every day, her presence is a tangible reminder of God’s unconditional love. She has taught me about compassion, patience, understanding, loyalty and the importance of appreciating life’s simple pleasures, be it basking in the sunshine or bird watching from the living-room window.

The benefits of pet ownership are well documented. Pets can decrease our blood pressure, cholesterol levels and feelings of loneliness. They can increase our opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities and socialization. Pet therapy programs in nursing homes, hospitals rehabilitation centers and other facilities have proven successful both physically and emotionally for residents and patients.

The examples are plentiful. An active senior couple I know had sworn off pets in their retirement years, but took a chance on a shy, neglected cat desperately in need of a home. They have since found their already-full lives enriched by her companionship. “Lucy’s a member of the family now,” the wife said recently.

A young man struggled with depression as he faced the pressures of young adulthood — college, relationships and deciding on a career. Finding it difficult to turn to his faith or confide in friends, he found solace and acceptance in the company of the family dog.

A local priest adopted a young female cat named Claire, expecting they would have many years together. He affectionately referred to her as “the creature,” and good-naturedly complained about her paper-shredding and pillow-hogging habits. As his health began to decline unexpectedly just six months after Claire came into his life, she was a source of comfort and companionship and was with him when he died.

When my coworker’s 39-year-old son was tragically killed, she found strength in her faith and the support of relatives and friends. Also comforting was the faithful presence of her little Yorkshire Terrier, Casey, who mourned right along with her. “He saw me crying, and he would cry, too,” she said. “He was something solid for me to hold onto.”

I’ve often heard criticism of the time and expense pet owners devote to their beloved furry companions. It is admittedly difficult to reconcile when so many of our fellow humans are in need. Obviously, we are called to respond to them in love and treat them justly.

I believe every creature is important in God’s eyes, deserving of respect and compassion. There is much to be learned from the example of St. Francis, who said, “Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission, to be of service to them whenever they require it.”

The bond we have with our pets, and they with us, is love in its most basic form. As Franciscan Father Kevin E. Mackin writes, that love…”can draw us more deeply into the larger circle of life, into the wonder of our common relationship to our Creator.”

For those of us whose lives are already blessed by a furred, finned or feathered friend, the feast of St. Francis is yet another opportunity to thank God for the wonders of His creation. It is also a chance for those who may be hesitant to have a pet in their lives to consider opening their hearts and homes to a dog, cat, or other animal. After all, there is only love to gain.

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