Dear friends in Christ,
We are only beginning the second week of Lent; there’s a long road ahead of us. Yet, if we’re not careful, we can begin to fall back into the usual spiritual routine. Let’s not forget that Lent is about upsetting the routine and striving for newness that leads to perfection. As we journey through this season, the Church proposes prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as timeless tools that can help us achieve our goal “to become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). These suggestions came directly from the teaching of Our Lord himself (cf. Mt 6:1-6, 16-18).
While resources and encouragement abound for new and creative ways to engage in prayer and fasting during this season, it seems that almsgiving is still the most under-practiced and under-encouraged Lenten discipline. For many of us, prayer and fasting are easier practices to adopt. Give something up for 40 days? Got it. Take on an extra spiritual practice? No problem. This is not to say that these two are easy, but we have understood their purpose for much longer. Almsgiving, though, is a different story. Many of us rarely felt that we had extra money to give, so we tended more or less to skip over this Lenten practice. Over time, the wonderful rewards of almsgiving may escape us totally. Some of us rarely know the joy of giving that remains at the heart of this season.
So, what is almsgiving and how is it connected to our faith? Almsgiving is, unsurprisingly, making a gift of alms, which are physical gifts, i.e., money, food, or goods intended to help those who are poor. Choosing to give alms makes a difference for those who give. It is an exercise in detachment, a reminder that money is not an ultimate good. Furthermore, giving alms is also a social practice, perhaps the most social of the Lenten trio. It is because giving always occurs in relationship. This social aspect of almsgiving reminds us of the social aspect of our faith; it reminds us that we are not alone on this journey. Above all, giving away money or possessions is an act of love. It is a way of embodying our desire for the good of other people. It echoes the self-giving love of God. It helps us to return that love in a concrete and visible way, for “whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me” (Mt 25:41).
Almsgiving can be a daunting task for a beginner, since there are so many good and worthy causes out there to choose. None of us can support everything; but this should not paralyze us into doing nothing at all. We could narrow down our options by connecting certain causes to what we care passionately about. For example, I’ve always enjoyed supporting the Annual Catholic Appeal in our diocese as a form of almsgiving, because I know that the money collected from the Appeal sustains our Church’s mission right here in Brooklyn and Queens. As a priest, I know how much our parishes, seminaries, schools, Catholic Charities and outreach programs for the poor depend on the generous donations of the faithful to this Appeal. Once upon a time, I myself was a direct beneficiary of this generosity when my whole family was sponsored to the United States thirty-two years ago as political refugees under the auspice of Catholic Charities. Without the help of the Church, we would not be here, and I certainly would not be able to study to become a priest. Now as a pastor, I am even more aware of the impact that the Annual Catholic Appeal makes in the lives of countless ordinary people like you and me who experience the mercy of God through what our Church provides. That is why I find my constant support for the Annual Catholic Appeal to be most personally meaningful and rewarding. I often make my giving a spiritual practice by praying for those who will benefit from my gift, and finding out how my gift is helping others. Giving from my meager means helps me to be more grateful to God for the resources that I have been given to share.
In the end, all our Lenten practices are meant to draw us closer to Christ, who always showed a special preference for the poor. Almsgiving is one concrete way we can follow Him more closely. As God the Father Himself said at the event of Jesus’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him!” (Mt 3:17), practicing almsgiving, along with prayer and fasting, is a concrete way to listen to Christ. After all, almsgiving is not only “a witness to fraternal charity”, but also “a work of justice pleasing to God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2462).
Wishing you all a Lenten season full of meaning and joy, I am
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham