As we contemplate this third pillar of Lenten practice, Almsgiving, we must note that all three pillars support the same foundation: building up the Body of Christ. In fasting, we strengthen the Body by subjecting the appetites to rational and spiritual oversight. In prayer, we strengthen the Body by resting our head on the breast of Christ, feeding that deep well within us that connects us to the divine, heals and enlightens us. In giving alms, we break the chains of self-absorption, and lift up others in material need. The call to Almsgiving also helps us reflect on our commitment to support the Church.
However, discerning the nature of this obligation takes some wisdom. Think about passing a beggar in the streets: One can simply say, give to all in need. However, if that beggar uses the money to feed his addiction, we have not lifted up the good of other with our almsgiving. This article helps you understand the doctrinal guidelines that will help you understand the principles behind almsgiving and the prudential practices that will help you fulfill this obligation with the true spirit of Lenten practice.
Moving beyond the ‘Spare Change’ Approach to Almsgiving
While filling those “rice bowl” boxes helps initiate children into the practice of almsgiving, this is not the model for adults. Similarly, how often do those in Mass reach into their pockets to offer a spare dollar bill or change for the offertory basket? Spare change is not the principle that should give almsgiving or our weekly Mass offerings. Giving alms requires a generous heart and prudential reasoning.
To give requires prudence: We must reflect on the past (the concrete needs of the poor and the nature of our commitments to parish life), anticipate the future( how to determine what we can give while still supporting our own family), in order to act well in the present — (decide of how much and to whom to give). The Church offers instruction to guide our giving.
Assessing the Needs of the Poor
The call to help the poor requires some assessment as to who are the poor. St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day is in nine days (Start the Novena to St. Thomas today), provides us with categories of poverty to enhance our discernment:
Those in extreme poverty lack the necessities to sustain life.
Those in serious poverty would fall into decline without material help.
Those in common poverty struggle to provide the necessities of life.
Each of these forms of poverty offers opportunities for almsgiving. Any act of giving to uplift the needs of the poor, done in the spirit of charity, is identified as almsgiving. Note too, that one does not have to give money: One can give of one’s time, one’s talents, provide a service, provide a meal or a specific commodity in need. The friend who cooks you a meal when you have a new baby, or who buys you a dryer when you can’t afford one, has given alms.
The more intimately we know the poor to whom we give alms, the more effective our almsgiving.
The Early vs. Modern Church and Almsgiving
In the early days of the Church, when communities were smaller and more closely-knit, the poor were known. The first Christians practiced the full sharing of material goods: “There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (Acts 4:34-35).
This historical fact has led to some confusion in the modern Church, with some favoring a more socialistic approach: that some organization (usually the government) should redistribute wealth to equalize possessions. Advocates of Liberation Theology go further by identifying the social structures that allow for inequalities of wealth as agents of “social sin,” and calling on governments to redistribute and equalize wealth.
The government and organizations do play a role in supporting the poor, and the contributions we make directly and indirectly (through taxes) also count toward almsgiving. However, the diluted nature of our connection to the poor through these indirect methods of giving nullifies the spiritual foundation to almsgiving which focuses on the virtue of charity. Charity is the lifting up of another’s good. We must give with that intention if we are to perform an act of almsgiving. Not knowing those whom we have helped makes this harder to mark.
The Church has never advocated socialism; and, by extension, the Church does not suggest that our tax dollars suffice for almsgiving. At the same time, the Church does not embrace “unbridled capitalism,” as each pope has reiterated, but encourages a responsible approach to wealth, one marked by acts of charity. The responsibility regarding material support, however, does not rest only with the wealthy.
We are each required to work to provide the material support for our family and Church. While the Church affirms, with St. Thomas, that man should not consider his external possessions as his own but as common to all, so as to share them without difficulty when others are in need, we also are not to give to those who refuse to work. Hence obligations lie on both sides of the giver-receiver equation.
Almsgiving Provides Mutual Benefits to Giver and Receiver
As the giver, we have a responsibility to give alms to those who will benefit in order to practice charity, the lifting up of the good of others. That good requires looking ahead, rather than in the moment. Offering our spare change does not meet this test. The principle of subsidiary also applies to giving: The better we know the individual or organization to which we give, the more intimate and more effective the almsgiving. For those we don’t know directly, the parish, which is our closest form of association in the Body of Christ, provides the most intimate and trusted opportunities for almsgiving — to those in need in our parishes, those in need in our communities who are helped by parishes, and the broader network of support provided within the archdiocese.
In order to give with charity, the giver should give discreetly, humbly and cheerfully. The act of giving must be free. The giver benefits by learning how to become more self-effacing and self-sacrificing. Often, helping another, especially if one knows the receiver more intimately, helps prepare the way for moral reformation. The receiving of charity requires humility as well; and those acts of generosity transform the receiver by humbly accepting grace.
The giving also provides re-formation in the giver by making him more sensitive to the needs of others and by remembering that all that we possess is given to us on loan by God, the author of all good gifts. We do not “deserve” what we get; we must acknowledge, with humble gratitude, that what we have is a blessing. Blessings are meant to share. However, we must share from our surplus, and not sacrifice the needs of our own family in our giving. There are clear limits on the call to give alms. Giving with the full spirit of charity also can take the form of repentance and provides works that cooperate with grace toward our salvation.
Pope Francis’, in his recent apostolic letter, reminds: “By making himself poor, Jesus did not seek poverty for its own sake but, as Saint Paul says, ‘that by his poverty you might become rich.’” These riches lie beyond the material, but the material gifts we have are necessities of life and require careful and generous stewardship.