Almsgiving has been considered a moral duty since Christianity began. “Alms” comes from the word “pity” in the Greek language and entails using one’s own means to perform works of mercy.
Almsgiving has been effected in many ways and means throughout history. In early times, each community provided food from their crops, along with shelter and care, for children and the sick or disabled among them. Five or six centuries ago in Europe, monasteries and parishes performed this duty. Most parishes have a ministry dedicated to this cause today.
However, the escalating number of the less fortunate due to war, famine, disease and other major societal issues forced governments to become the primary providers of alms and laws were established to deal with this aspect of society. The process has evolved over time to become more efficient, beneficial and less stigmatic for those receiving alms. Many large corporations and organisations work with governments to provide vital aid for the needy in our societies.
What does almsgiving mean for us as Catholics? To many, Lent means simply giving up something for that period. It is right to fast and abstain but we also need to pray and give alms. Let us come to a true understanding of that old-fashioned term “giving alms” and its relation to “giving up”.
Most people think of it as giving money to the poor or less fortunate. In fact, the true meaning of this phrase is that money is given as a means of performing works of mercy in the name of and for the love of God. It is important to provide an example to our children, so that they understand the result of their personal sacrifice and generosity, through the giving up of some pleasure or activity.
The greatest example is provided by Jesus through his actions and teachings as outlined in the Corporal Works of Mercy:
- Give food to the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Visit the sick and imprisoned
- Shelter the homeless
- Bury the dead
In short, love for your neighbour. “As often as you did it for one of the least of brothers, you did it for me” (Matthew 25: 31-36).
The list above treats with the most fundamental needs of human beings. When we choose to do without so that these needs are satisfied, we are doing so in accordance with Jesus’ example and teachings.
Our children know that we need food to live and grow properly so that we can work, play, think and enjoy God’s gift of life. We need clean water for good health and proper hygiene and to care for our environment. Clothing and shelter protect us. Medical care is necessary for our good health. Unfortunately, the basic needs of many people in the world today are not being met.
Whilst Government agencies and other organisations attempt to meet these needs locally and globally, the demand is never ending and offers opportunities for us to give alms. Many children are given pocket money, families go on outings. When we deny ourselves or defer these treats, make sacrifices, we are giving up to give to others.
By identifying a cause or causes, committing to and working towards a certain result which will benefit our fellow human beings by addressing their basic needs, we are committing to the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and through Him the greatest Commandments of God.
– Archdiocesan Catechetical Office