Sunday, December 12, 2010

Almsgiving an Important Part of the Spiritual LIfe

Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is Caritas (Almsgiving) Sunday in Korea. The two Catholic papers brought it to our attention in their editorials, as did a pastoral letter from the Bishops' Conference. A surprise to many would be the thinking expressed in Tobit 12:8, "Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness." St. Clement makes a further distinction, saying that fasting is better than prayer and almsgiving is better than both. Giving alms is a giving of ourselves, our love made manifest in material goods, a prayer for those less fortunate than the giver. Catholics start off Lent with these three Lenten practices.

The President of the Bishops' Committee for "Caritas Coreana," in his message for this Sunday, reminds us that "Almsgiving expiates every sin" (Tob. 12:9).  "Many people are suffering from financial difficulty, and more and more people cannot manage their lives with dignity. These days, people do not take time for inner reflection...This results from living 'without hope and without God in the world' "(Eph. 2:12). He reminds us that since God's main work is loving, love should be part of what we are about.

In Korean society, even though we have  made great strides in recent years, there are many who have fallen in-between-the-cracks, and few of us see them. Poverty is of many kinds and the one that is the easiest to see is the material kind. The welfare system is handled well in Korea. Those that do not have any children are given help, but there are times when those that have children would have fared better not to have them-when it comes to receiving help from the government. They would not be on the lists of the poor in the different townships of the country.

Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting? It could be because it includes prayer and fasting. Our giving to the poor is prayer-like because it is giving also to God. "I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me" (Matt. 25:40).  Almsgiving is also a form of fasting for it means that I do without, however small what is given may be.  Of all three Lenten practices--prayer, fasting, almsgiving--almsgiving, for many, hurts the most.

However, the material loss for some who give seems not to matter. An economic prize given to those who have been notable in their works of charity was recently given to a company president who had refused to be honored for his giving for many years,, but this year they forced it on him. He has used the phrase from Matthew (his oldest son is a priest): "When you give alms make sure the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing." (This year his strategy did not work.) He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to many different works of charity within and without the Church.

The interviewer for the Catholic Times asked him what he thought was the meaning of almsgiving. "We have to live humbly and with others," was his reply. The one who gives while living a lavish  lifestyle and  only gives what is left over is not practicing charity, and his giving cannot be called almsgiving. The one who lives frugally and, while sharing in the pain and the joys of others, gives--that giving is almsgiving.

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