WHAT IS ALMSGIVING?

Understanding the Lenten (and Year-Round) Charitable Practice

If the word “almsgiving” conjures up images of Lent, fishfries, parish soup suppers and giving to the rice bowl—then you are in good company. 

But many Catholics are surprised to learn that the practice of giving alms isn't just a Lenten spiritual discipline. It is meant to be a year-round exercise, an integral part of our spiritual lives, and can be a tool that leads us to a deeper union with Jesus Christ and the universal church. 

Together, let’s dive into the spiritual discipline of almsgiving and learn how we can incorporate it into our lives.

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF ALMSGIVING?

The Catholic Church considers almsgiving "a witness to fraternal charity" and "a work of justice pleasing to God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2462). 

Almsgiving is the act of donating money or goods to the poor or performing other acts of charity.  However, when defining almsgiving, it helps to understand the meaning behind the word itself. 

The roots of the word “alms” can be found in ancient Latin and Greek words meaning mercy and pity. Similarly, the root of the word “charity” comes from the Latin “caritas,” meaning love. 

almsgiving-is-an-act-of-charity

Charity, or almsgiving, is an outward sign of Christian love for others. Generally, it involves some type of sacrifice on behalf of the giver in order to provide for the needs of the other. In doing this, bonds of community are formed.

BUT ALMSGIVING ONLY HAPPENS DURING LENT, RIGHT?

While almsgiving is most closely associated with Lent, the practice of giving alms can, and should, be a year-round spiritual exercise for all Catholics and Christians. Giving alms is essential to fostering a deep spiritual life because it allows us to step outside of ourselves and focus on the needs of others. 

More than simply giving money, almsgiving is an act of love that can deepen our prayer life and bring a greater sense of meaning to fasting.

Almsgiving incorporates the spiritual practices of prayer and fasting in a way that manifests itself by caring for our neighbors in need. It can deepen our prayer as we are brought into contact with our brothers and sisters who live in poverty and give us a greater understanding of what it means to go without while fasting.

It can also prompt important questions: Do I really need this? Am I consuming too much? Almsgiving provides us with a human connection and the opportunity to see the impact that works of charity can have on others

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THE IMPORTANCE OF ALMSGIVING.

Almsgiving is an ancient practice that brings us into communion with one another in ways that extend beyond fasting and prayer. By caring for the needs of those around us, we are participating in the merciful work of the Church to provide for all members of our universal family. 

Let's explore the ancient practice of almsgiving by examining answers to the following questions (click the links below to jump straight to the section):

  1. What does almsgiving mean?
  2. Why is almsgiving important?
  3. How is almsgiving an act of justice?
  4. What does almsgiving mean in the Bible?

WHAT DOES ALMSGIVING MEAN?

Charitable giving is an ancient practice that is customary in many cultures and religions. As Christians, we are called to follow in the example of Christ who showed great compassion to those on the fringes of society. Even if we do not see them, the poor have always been among us and so has the call to support them. 

The Catechism states that charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC, No. 1822).

More than simply giving money, almsgiving is an act of love that incorporates both prayer and fasting and manifests itself by caring for our neighbor in need. As we help our brothers and sisters who live in poverty, we become more connected to God and to one another.

WHY IS ALMSGIVING IMPORTANT?

At its core, almsgiving is a spiritual and religious practice that strengthens our love for others, increases our detachment and contributes to greater social justice.

This threefold meaning of almsgiving helps us understand why it is particularly central to the season of Lent. During Lent, Jesus invites us into a deeper journey with him, and to journey with Jesus Christ means to live as Christ lived. 

Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus caring in a special way for sinners, tax collectors, the impoverished, the sick and anyone else on the margins of society. With the rich young man and with the scribes and Pharisees who persecute him, we see Jesus chastising them and calling them to a higher order of love, mercy and material detachment so that they too can serve the poor as they ought.

When we give alms, we are making a concrete donation of ourselves (through money, time, talent or service) to others. The concreteness of almsgiving is crucial. Although prayer for others is worthy and good, almsgiving helps us say, in crystal clear terms: “Here is what I can offer, and I offer it out of love for you (and God) because I care about your welfare.”

HOW IS ALMSGIVING AN ACT OF JUSTICE?

The Church teaches us that all people are made in the image of God and so possess equal and inherent dignity. Each person has a right to all they need to live their full potential as intended by God.

At the root of the practice of almsgiving is the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity" (CCC, No. 1931). This responsibility to care for our neighbors becomes even more important when it involves those who are disadvantaged (CCC, No. 1932). 

By treating our neighbor as “another self” we are removing any human barriers that might separate us. God sees all men and women as his children, equal in his eyes, and therefore deserving of fair and just treatment. Almsgiving allows justice to flourish through simple acts of love and compassion.

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WHAT DOES ALMSGIVING MEAN IN THE BIBLE?

The theme of giving charitably to those in need is seen throughout scripture and shows a connectedness that we all have to one another and to God.

The Old Testament
The New Testament

In the Old Testament, the notion of alms is understood primarily through the context of justice, and charity was an integral part of Jewish custom long before the time of Christ. In fact, the Hebrew word for almsgiving, "tzedakah," means righteousness. It is believed that giving to the poor helps reestablish the right order and encourages justice. 

Hebrew law ensured that the gleanings from the harvest should be left for the poor in the field and vineyard (Leviticus 19:9-10). In Proverbs, we are told that “whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (14:31); however, refusing to give alms to the poor brings just retribution (21:13). 

Tobit tells us that "it is better to give alms than to store up gold, for almsgiving saves from death and purges all sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life" (Tobit 12:9).

Throughout the Old Testament, scripture has a lot to say about the righteousness of almsgiving, including the following:

  • “When someone is reduced to poverty, welcome them into your home” (Leviticus 25:35)
  • “Do not close your hand to someone in need” (Deuteronomy 15:7)
  • “A man who is righteous will be remembered forever” (Psalm 112:5-9)
  • “If you satisfy the afflicted, your light shall rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:10)

In the New Testament, almsgiving is primarily viewed as an act of love and compassion. A critical component of Christ’s teachings is to love one another as God loves. By caring for others and sharing our fortune with them, we are participating in the work of Christ on earth. 

Christ directs us to care for others as we would care for him. He tells his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus also shows us the importance of almsgiving and caring for the poor in the eyes of God. The rich man ignored the beggar Lazarus while on earth and was cast into hell at the time of his death (Luke 16:19–31).

We do not, however, have to be wealthy and give great amounts. In Luke’s Gospel, the poor widow who gave only two coins to the offering (21:1-4) is a wonderful example of the power of almsgiving, even when we feel we have nothing to give.

The importance of almsgiving is seen repeatedly throughout the New Testament. Some additional examples include:

  • “Give to those who ask, and do not turn your back on anyone who wants to borrow” (Matthew 5:42)
  • “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22)
  • “If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, the love of God cannot remain in him” (1 John 3:17)

The scriptures show us that simple acts of kindness and selflessness are all that is required to make a meaningful difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.

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PRAYER, FASTING, AND ALMSGIVING: THE THREE PILLARS OF LENT.

For 40 days each year, the universal church comes together to share in the penitential acts of the Lenten season. During this time we are called to a true conversion of heart as followers of Christ. The Church offers us three means of working towards this interior conversion: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

three-pillars-of-lent-prayer-fasting-almsgiving

These three pillars of Lent draw us closer to God and one another by helping us to overcome our own selfish desires. Many of us are quick to make faithful resolutions regarding fasting and prayer. But almsgiving, the most outwardly focused pillar, tends to be the most overlooked.

WHY DO WE PRACTICE PRAYER, FASTING AND ALMSGIVING DURING LENT?

While giving alms to the poor is an important corporal work of mercy, the term “almsgiving” is one we hear most frequently during Lent. 

The three pillars of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are expressions of the fundamental purpose of Lent, which is to turn to God in a conversion of heart. Each pillar is distinct yet remains vitally connected to the others, forming a unique triad that draws us closer to God and one another throughout this penitential season.

Acts of almsgiving during Lent allow us to:

  • Let go of our own desires and focus on the needs of the less fortunate
  • Sacrifice our temporal comfort for the good of another person
  • Rely on God to meet our needs rather than providing for ourselves

Two of the central lessons of the cross are compassion and selflessness. As we enter the Lenten season, the world continues to suffer from pain and unrest. Now, more than ever, acts of almsgiving can bring us together and heal our wounds.

WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF ALMSGIVING DURING LENT?

In his 2020 Lenten Message, Pope Francis stated that “there is a need to appeal to men and women of goodwill to share, by almsgiving, their goods with those most in need, as a means of personally participating in the building of a better world. Charitable giving makes us more human, whereas hoarding risks making us less human, imprisoned by our own selfishness.”

pope-francis-quote-on-almsgiving

This year, there is an unprecedented number of people in need, as the world continues to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic. 

Many dioceses hold special appeals for local needs during Lent, and there are countless other ways to offer your time, talent and treasure.  

Look for ways to incorporate some of the following almsgiving examples into your Lenten practice:

  • Donate food to your local soup kitchen or food bank
  • Tutor a schoolchild or mentor a college graduate (this can be done virtually!)
  • Increase your donation to your local parish
  • Do some grocery shopping or run an errand for an elderly neighbor
  • Each week, write a note of affirmation to someone special in your life
  • Make a meal for an elderly neighbor or a new mother and leave it on their doorstep
  • Show an act of kindness to someone who is difficult to get along with
  • Support the work of the Church around the world by giving to organizations that serve at-risk and impoverished populations

 

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IDEAS FOR ALMSGIVING THROUGHOUT THE YEAR.

Now that we’ve talked about the importance of almsgiving, it’s time to get creative with our personal call to give alms. There are so many ways to make this a joyful and fruitful spiritual practice!

These almsgiving examples are meant to be a springboard for your own thoughts and ideas so you can shape them to the context of your own life. Like them all? Try one for a month at a time until you find a practice that resonates with you. Then, resolve to continue giving alms throughout the rest of the year!

Click the links below to show examples of almsgiving that match your interests or circumstances:

 

Almsgiving Examples if You...

Want to Give Locally
Want to Practice Detachment
Don't Have a Lot of Money
Want to Pick a Theme
Want to Strengthen Your Prayer Life

Sometimes we get so used to giving alms in the form of regular tithes to our parish or to a favorite charity that we forget the more immediate ways we can give to the people around us, whether family, friends or those in the larger community.

  1. Make or pay for dinner for someone you know. Do you know any couples expecting a child? A young relative away at school? A mom who’s just had a baby? A family who you know is struggling through illness or job loss? Send them a check or a Venmo payment (or make something yourself if you’d like), and tell them to enjoy a stress-free dinner. You never know how much these little things can help others feel loved and cared for.
  2. Think about your immediate and extended family. Is there a young person trying to buy a car or make rent? Could this relative use a little help with the mortgage this month? Can you think of some items you can offer which would make someone’s life much easier? Don’t hesitate to be generous to those who are closest to you.
  3. Find out which food bank or homeless shelter is nearest to you and make a donation. Ideally, pay a visit to the place and offer your time in addition to your financial support.
  4. Make designated car kits to offer to anyone you encounter who is experiencing homelessness. There are few things more painful than seeing a fellow human in need and not having anything on hand to help. These car kits can be simple: a water bottle, a $5 bill, a pair of socks, an energy bar, and a printout with numbers and addresses of local shelters or places they can find help—all in a big Ziploc bag. If you make and keep five to 10 of these in your car at all times, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to minister to your brother or sister in Christ on the street—people who are so often ignored—and be the hands of Christ to them.

Learning the spiritual discipline of detachment is one of the most important and difficult spiritual practices. Whether we are too attached to material things or to our own pride and sense of control, almsgiving can help us. 

Here are some simple almsgiving ideas to help us detach from both our sense of control and our physical, material goods.

  1. Let your children pick how you will give alms each month. This is a great way to practice detachment and to draw your whole family into the practice of almsgiving. You might be surprised at the ideas and inspirations they have! Children are often more naturally generous than adults.
  2. Commit to giving money to the next good cause that crosses your path. God is in control of all aspects of your life. He knows how our money can help better than we ever could. Give over control to him and promise to donate X amount to the next cause that crosses your path, whether on your social media feeds, on a billboard or through word of mouth.
  3. Ask your pastor or spiritual advisor what he thinks or if he is aware of some need you can help meet. Sometimes God is just waiting to work through the words of others if we will only let him!
  4. Clean out unnecessary items and articles of clothing and donate them to a homeless shelter or Catholic-run thrift shop. We all strive to make more space in our lives and hearts for Christ, and sometimes the best way to make space is literally to get rid of things. This is not a chance to get rid of junk or to donate things that are of no value to anyone. Challenge yourself to get rid of things that you may like, but do not need, and that may help someone else.

This past year has been tough on many people’s wallets. If you are contemplating almsgiving with a sinking feeling in your heart, you are not alone. Jesus Christ sees your struggles and your needs and he will treasure the generosity of whatever you can offer, even if it seems small.

Here are some ways you can give alms even if you can’t spare much money.

  1. Give your time or talent to your local Catholic church. This is a great way to be generous if you can’t spare any money! Giving your time doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can mean singing in your choir, offering to help out at the local food bank or serving as an usher at Mass.
  2. Pick one item that you would have purchased for yourself, and give alms in that amount. This can be challenging when money is tight, but there is almost always some little thing that we can give up. Even if it’s your one coffee treat a month, offering that $3.50 to God and the poor instead will store up great treasure in heaven.
  3. Buy one extra item at the grocery store and donate it to a food bank. Again, if you are struggling to buy your own groceries these days, this may seem like a tall order. But can you manage one extra can of beans or soup? That’s all it takes to be generous with others even in your own need.
  4. Offer to take on tasks for a friend or loved one. You may not be able to offer money, but you can still offer a generous spirit. Think about ways you can take on tasks and responsibilities from those around you to help lighten their burden. Can you do your elderly neighbor’s grocery shopping? Take your nieces or nephews to the park to give their parents a break? Help your roommate study for a test or quiz? These small acts of service are one of the best ways we can love those around us.

Do you have a particular passion or interest, either in the realm of work or a hobby? Perhaps you have always wanted to learn more about a specific topic or current event, but never found the time to? Try almsgiving but with a specific theme in mind! 

This will allow you to combine generosity with the opportunity to learn more about something that engages your imagination and interests.

  1. Interested in music? Find a nonprofit that offers music instruction to underprivileged kids and donate your time or money to help.
  2. Interested in the arts? Many Catholic artists are struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic. Find a Catholic artist who needs support, and purchase something from their store or make a donation to help them in their work.
  3. Interested in foreign affairs or mission work? Pick a country that interests you and see if you can find a way to support the local church there. In many countries, Catholics and Christians are facing terrible persecution and they need our help and prayers.
  4. Passionate about supporting women with unplanned pregnancies? Do some research into the local and national nonprofits that support these women, and give a little money each week to a different organization.

Prayer and almsgiving are the peanut butter and jelly of the spiritual life: They work best together.

If you are interested in strengthening your prayer life, try to combine habits of prayer with little gifts of alms.

  1. Make a small donation in thanksgiving for the help of a favorite saint. Whether it’s lighting a candle in front of their statue in your parish or donating a small sum to a religious order or charity, intensify small practices of devotion through your almsgiving. 
  2. Offer Masses for the souls of those you love. Participating in the Mass is the highest form of prayer we can make. Ask to have Masses said for your special intentions and make a donation in thanksgiving.
  3. Combine regular visits to a church for prayer with small donations to the poor box. What if, every time you went to church to pray, you made a small offering? What a beautiful way to remind ourselves that we are meant to live for God and others, not just ourselves!
  4. Make a pilgrimage and donation to a sacred site. The tradition of pilgrimage is as old and beautiful as that of almsgiving. Choose one weekend to drive or walk to a specific sacred place (it doesn’t have to be far away), praying for a special intention and offering penance along the way. Then make a donation there in honor of your journey. These mini pilgrimages help us keep our eyes focused on our life’s larger journey to be with Christ in heaven.

WHAT DOES ALMSGIVING MEAN TO CATHOLICS?

Almsgiving allows us to let go of our own desires and focus on the needs of those who are less fortunate. Two of the central lessons of the cross are compassion and selflessness. By giving alms, we are sacrificing our temporal comfort for the good of another person. When we give alms our aim is to be more dependent on God to meet our needs (rather than providing for ourselves) while also tending to the needs of others.

The call to give alms is present throughout scripture. A critical component of Christ’s teachings is to love one another as God loves us. By caring for others and sharing your fortune with them, you are participating in the work of Christ on earth. 

Christ directs us to care for others as if they were Jesus himself. He tells his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40)

The widow with the two coins from Luke’s Gospel is a wonderful example of the power of almsgiving, even when we feel we have nothing to give:

"When he looked up he saw some wealthy people putting their offerings into the treasury and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins. He said, ‘I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood’"(Luke 21:1-4).

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF ALMSGIVING TO CHARITABLE ORGANIZATIONS.

As Catholics, giving to those who are less fortunate and supporting charitable organizations is a spiritual discipline that we can engage in to strengthen our relationship with the Lord and with the Body of Christ. 

In fact, it is because of those who’ve answered the call to give alms that organizations such as Divine Word Missionaries are able to support those who need it most. We continue to be amazed and inspired by the compassion and generosity of those who practice almsgiving and support our cause.

Without the generosity of our supporters and those who give alms to help sustain our work, Divine Word Missionaries and other charitable organizations like us wouldn’t be able to carry out our mission and make an impact around the globe.

 

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HELP DIVINE WORD MISSIONARIES AROUND THE WORLD.

The call to give alms is an invitation to share in the mission of the cross and make the needs of others, our own. When you support our missionaries through charitable giving, you deepen your spiritual life and participate in the critical work of the universal church. 

Divine Word Missionaries work tirelessly to feed the hungry, care for the sick, foster education, shelter the homeless and bring Jesus, the Divine Word, to vulnerable populations around the world. 

By making a financial gift, your almsgiving will ensure that our missionaries can continue to make Jesus known to every person, in every nation. You can also support our work by praying for the success of our missionaries and mission projects. Please know we are very grateful for all the ways you support our mission work and make it possible.

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