Charity and Almsgiving
Today's Stational church, on the site of Nero's Golden Palace, was the home of the Roman martyrs, John and Paul, which was converted into a parish church of Rome in the fifth-century by the Christian Senator Pammachius. He was the son-in-law of St Paula and a friend of St Jerome. Six ancient frecoes in the church represent the captivity and death of these martyrs. Near this church is a hospice for pilgrims (Xenodochium Valerii) built by Pammachius who spent his whole fortune upon the poor and in works of charity.
Thus, this fittingly turns our mind to the third classical Lenten observance: almsgiving. It would be a reduction to reduce this to just giving money to the poor or making a donation to a charitable organization. Rather, the Third Preface for Lent in the Roman Missal says that by
almsgiving "we are to show to those in need your goodness to ourselves." This requires a more personal involvement in the plight of the needy and oppressed, far beyond giving away money to ease our conscience, or to fulfill a duty, or an institutionalized giving which is detached and distant. For the heart of almsgiving is charity, which is born of a relationship with God that leads us to a genuine love for a brother or sister; this calls for a genuine interest in the other whom we love as a person. It also calls for a self-gift that touches us at the core, just as the widow in Mark 12:41-44 gave from what she had to survive on and not just her excess. In his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI explained charity in this way:
"Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave... But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be 'devout' and to perform my 'religious duties', then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely 'proper', but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me."
As such, almsgiving calls us to give love to others, whether that is in the form of financial help or practical, tangible help; indeed it is not help as such but care and concern for our neighbour. For most of us, time is a premium and yet that is what is asked of us, to give to others from what precious little time we have for ourselves. Or it may be a kind word to the homeless person we meet on the pavement - not just the spare change he asks of us but our interest in him as a person.
There is a real and apparent danger that Christianity is being reduced to 'good acts', we experience the institutionalization or corporatization of charity, so that it becomes a cold, hard reality; it becomes loveless and thus, lifeless. As Pope Benedict reminded us in his recent Lenten Message:
"Very often, when having to address grave problems, [some] have thought that they should first improve this world and only afterwards turn their minds to the next. The temptation was to believe that, in the face of urgent needs, the first imperative was to change external structures. The consequence, for some, was that Christianity became a kind of moralism, ‘believing’ was replaced with ‘doing’. Rightly, therefore, my Predecessor, Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, observed: 'The temptation today is to reduce Christianity to merely human wisdom, a pseudo-science of well-being. In our heavily secularized world, a ‘gradual secularization of salvation’ has taken place, so that people strive for the good of man, but man who is truncated…We know, however, that Jesus came to bring integral salvation'."
The solution to this of course, is true charity, which is rooted in God's love and is an expression of our love for Him and thus reaches out to our neighbour, our brothers and sisters in Christ. That is why the Lenten practices come together, like a kind of trinity of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In prayer, we contemplate the face of Christ and see His love for us; in fasting, we purify ourselves, we become more attuned to God and see Him and the world around us more clearly; in almsgiving, we respond to God's love and to the needs of others which we see through God's eyes. Hence, the Holy Father said:
"In the face of the terrible challenge of poverty afflicting so much of the world’s population, indifference and self-centered isolation stand in stark contrast to the 'gaze' of Christ. Fasting and almsgiving, which, together with prayer, the Church proposes in a special way during the Lenten Season, are suitable means for us to become conformed to this 'gaze'."
And again in his homily on Ash Wednesday, delivered at the Dominican-run Basilica of Santa Sabina, the Pope said that charity "must then be translated into concrete gestures toward one's neighbor, especially toward the poor and the needy... Concrete love is one of the essential elements of the life of Christians, whom Jesus encourages to be light of the world so that, seeing their 'good works,' men will give glory to God."
This Lent, let us renew our commitment to more truly love the poor - materially, socially, emotionally, intellectually - and so, show to these who are in need, the depths of God's love for us, whose goodness and mercy is without end. In this regard, may we "contemplate the face of Christ at the school of Mary" (Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae), calling upon Our Lady's intercession and guidance and the help of the Roman martyrs, Saints John and Paul.
The photo above was taken in Manila, the Philippines, in July 2005.