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home : our faith : faith alive August 17, 2017

FAITH ALIVE: Almsgiving as an act of mercy
A Haitian boy drops money into the collection box during a Mass in Port-au-Prince. Almsgiving is a true Lenten sacrifice because we do it without expecting to receive anything in return. CNS photo/Peter Finney, Clarion Herald
A Haitian boy drops money into the collection box during a Mass in Port-au-Prince. Almsgiving is a true Lenten sacrifice because we do it without expecting to receive anything in return. CNS photo/Peter Finney, Clarion Herald

By Paul Senz | Catholic News Service

We all recognize Lent as a time of sacrifice, a time to prepare ourselves for the commemoration of Jesus Christ's passion, death and resurrection. Traditionally, there are three pillars of this intensely spiritual and ascetic period that can help us grow in charity and perfect penitence: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Prayer and fasting are the most widely understood of these three pillars, as is their connection to the 40 days of Lent. In these 40 days, we unite ourselves with Christ in the desert, as he prepared for his ministry. He fasted; he fervently prayed. But did he give alms?

Almsgiving calls for a great examination. What exactly does it mean to give alms? How does this relate to prayer and fasting, particularly in the context of Lenten sacrifice?

Almsgiving is more than handing out money; it is about the universal destination of goods, a term used in Catholic social teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that "the goods of creation are destined for the entire human race" (No. 2452).

Far from being a sort of socialist mantra, this is a reminder of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters in the truest sense of "caritas," or charity: "Giving alms to the poor is a witness to fraternal charity: It is also a work of justice pleasing to God" (No. 2462).

It is just, and the height of mercy, to give of ourselves and our goods for the sake of others. There is perhaps no better time to practice such a virtue than the season of preparing for the paschal mystery.

Almsgiving is not just about giving money to the church, putting a few dollars into the donation basket. It is about giving of what we have -- and giving of ourselves.

How many of us have more than we truly need? And how much of that excess do we pass along to our brothers and sisters? Jesus lauds the poor widow who gives of her meager means (see Mk 12:41-44), even in her poverty. We are all called to embrace this spirit of charity.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we are reminded that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). In Tobit we read that "prayer with fasting is good. Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold, for almsgiving saves from death, and purges all sin. Those who give alms will enjoy full life" (Tb 12:8-9).

What is it that unites the three pillars of Lent together? These pillars help us to empty ourselves, in the spirit of Jesus' emptying of himself: "Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:7-8).

We go beyond ourselves and seek the good of the other and the glorification of God, at the expense of our own egos, at the expense of our own comfort. Such acts of sacrifice and self-mortification help to put us in harmony with God again, help us to reforge the relationship that was fractured by our sin.

Almsgiving is a true Lenten sacrifice because we do it without expecting to receive anything in return.

Jesus tells us, "When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you" (Lk 14:12-14).

It is in this spirit that we give, and in a special way during Lent.

We are not doing this because we will receive something ourselves; we do it for love of our neighbor, and to fulfill the command of our Lord.

Our almsgiving is to be done in the truest sense of "caritas" -- self-sacrificial love. The charitable work of the church and her members is not just about alleviating earthly suffering or righting earthly wrongs. As in all things, the point of such charity is the salvation of souls.

When we give alms, we give not only money; we give our time; we give our talents; we sacrifice our own comfort and desires for the sake of others, for their good. This is mercy in a very real sense.

In fact, the term "alms" ultimately owes its origin to the Greek term "eleos," meaning mercy, and almsgiving is at its heart a merciful offering of ourselves in love.

We follow the example of Jesus Christ. During this Lenten season, we strive to unite ourselves with him who gave everything, including his very life, so that we might have eternal life in us. We pray, we fast, we give alms in order that we might more closely conform to his example.

Senz is a freelance writer living in Oregon with his family.

New ways to give alms

By Effie Caldarola | Catholic News Service

The word "almsgiving" has an old-fashioned ring to it. It calls to mind a Charles Dickens novel, a street urchin begging from the upper classes.

How many of us write a check to our local food bank and think of it as "giving alms"? It's not really a 21st-century term.

Let's get ready to change that during Lent. The church urges us to think of this word as one of the three pillars of Lent -- prayer, fasting, almsgiving. An old English word, it has its roots in a Greek term meaning "mercy."

And that's a fine reason to embrace the word almsgiving.

How can we think of almsgiving in new ways during this penitential season? How can almsgiving bring about a change of heart, the conversion called for during Lent?

First, I find it's important in my own Lenten journey to think of the three pillars as integral to each other. Prayer is vital to a good Lent. Fasting reminds me of my need for prayer and discipline.

Almsgiving becomes a natural response to where my prayer and fasting take me -- a desire to serve Jesus through others, to give of myself and what I have.

How about combining fasting with almsgiving? One Lent, I recognized that I had developed an expensive taste for designer coffee. Why not calculate what those lattes or mochas were costing me, and "give up" that habit for Lent, designating a charity that would benefit from my sacrifice.

It's almost embarrassing to write that paragraph, as I realize what a First World issue that is -- poor me, no trips to the barista. Nevertheless, it produced results, not the least of which was eventually realizing I was indulging way too much in that pricey habit. And the money not spent went to a good cause.

Remember, the alms we give should come from sacrifice. They shouldn't come from our excess, the leftover money in our bank account at the end of the month. And, like my realization about mochas, they should produce some self-awareness in us as we journey through Lent.

Try giving up shopping for Lent. I had a friend who gave up shopping for a year -- only groceries and the unavoidable expenditures, like car repair, were allowed. As you give up shopping, let it become a source of prayer. Why do I "need" so much? Do I shop out of boredom? Will that trendy sweater make me whole?

Keep track of the shopping money you save and use it for alms.

That great dress on sale that you passed up might become a winter coat for a refugee. Be conscious of this during prayer. And keep a journal. Where did I sacrifice so that another might have what they truly need? This is almsgiving.

Or commit to grocery shopping more economically. Do I splurge for crab legs this Friday, or will a tuna casserole work just fine? With the money saved, fill part of your cart with items for a food pantry. That tuna casserole choice becomes not just food for me but for another, as well as food for prayer and reflection.

At least once or twice during Lent, make the "alms" you distribute your own time and talent. Call the food pantry, tell them you have some donations and ask if they have any job they need help with on a Lenten Saturday.

One of the most eye-opening volunteer efforts I ever did was assisting clients at a food pantry. I became aware of the struggles I'd only heard about. It embarrassed me when the shelves held limited items, yet it amazed me when people would weep in gratitude for small assistance.

So, almsgiving can change our hearts. It should be sacrificial, should be tied to prayer and fasting, should help us reflect on our own journey, and should truly help others. Almsgiving can help us grow in mercy and justice this Lent.

Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.

Almsgiving: Give in a way 'that is pleasing to God'

By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service

"Giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "It is also a work of justice pleasing to God" (No. 2447).

Throughout Scripture, we find ample evidence of God calling us to give alms to the poor, beginning with the book of Leviticus (25:35): "When one of your kindred is reduced to poverty and becomes indebted to you, you shall support that person like a resident alien; let your kindred live with you."

And who are our "kindred"?

"Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother," declares Jesus (Mt 12:50).

Or, as the Book of Proverbs makes clear (19:17): "Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full."

None of this should be news to those of us who desire to follow Jesus. Of course, desiring and doing are not the same thing.

Recall the rich young man, who told Jesus he had kept and followed all of the commandments in hopes of attaining eternal life. But when Jesus further instructed him to "go, sell what you have and give to the poor," so that he may have "treasure in heaven" (Mt 19:21), the young man decided, sadly, he couldn't do it.

Contrast this with the woman who put "two small coins worth a few cents" into the treasury (Mk 12:41-44) -- and Jesus' ensuing admonition to his disciples:

"This poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood."

Few of us, in all honesty, can sell off "our whole livelihood" and give the proceeds to the poor. But we can certainly share what we have, as we learn from the Acts of the Apostles (2:44-45):

"All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need."

The catechism has a choice reminder for us as we consider what we can give:

"How can we fail to hear Jesus: 'As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me'?" (No. 2463).

In this Lenten season, when almsgiving is one of the three pillars we are invited to practice (along with prayer and fasting), we are, at the very least, called to be more mindful of the poor in our midst and to respond as generously as possible.

"Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have," says the Letter to the Hebrews (13:16), since "God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind."

For remember what God gave us: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16).

Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.


"Almsgiving must carry with it all the richness of mercy," since the word "alms" derives from the Greek word meaning "mercy," Pope Francis said at a jubilee audience on April 9, 2016.

The Bible repeatedly shows the responsibility of God's people to give attention to "the needy, the widow, the stranger, the sojourner, the orphan."

God wants his children to "watch over these brothers and sisters," the pope said, as they are "at the very center of the message: to praise God through sacrifice and to praise God through almsgiving." Giving alms, then, becomes a joyful form of worship.

Pope Francis also reminded his audience not to judge others when giving alms. "How many people justify their not giving alms by saying: 'What kind of person is this? If I give him something perhaps he will go buy wine to get drunk.'"

Do not just give money and hurry away, the pope said, but look at the face of the person asking for help. "At the same time" the pope added, "we must distinguish between the poor and various forms of begging that do not render a good service to the truly poor."

Above all, almsgiving "is a gesture of love that is directed at those we meet."

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