This word is seemingly not brought up much anymore. It’s not common in our daily, weekly, monthly, and maybe even yearly vocabulary. Some of us might not even claim to have a good working definition of it. Others may offer up that it means giving money to the poor. In truth, this word, this concept is so very much more. First, why talk about it at all? The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us in 1434 that, along with prayer and fasting, almsgiving is insisted upon by Scripture and the Fathers as crucial to the interior penance of the person. Since Lent is the season of penance and preparation of our souls, it is a most opportune time to discuss it.
Alms, from the Greek word ἐλεημοσύνη (eleemosune), carries a stronger meaning of mercy or pity than anything about mere money. It is an act which originates from the heart rather than from the wallet or from a sense of "doing good." When we encounter a person who needs alms (read: mercy and pity), our response can therefore can take many expressions, though all of them must be founded in love and truth.
Let's turn our attention to the recipient. We may see individuals who are on the streets and poor; these certainly are those in need of alms. Our first response might be to give them $20 and move along. Problem solved, right? No. Tossing money at a person is tantamount to saying: "I want to do something, but I really don't want to engage you on a human level; take your material needs and go." Such a response can actually dehumanize the needy person even more, turning him or her into a mere opportunity for me to feel good about myself in a prideful way: "I really helped them, so I'll feel good about me." It is using a person as a means to emotional gratification; it is a selfish act. Can giving money to the poor ever be good? Sure. Here's how: the most important aspect of giving alms is to see the person as a beloved of God and a human being, to treat the person as a neighbor, to engage the person with dignity and compassion, and to seek his or her good. In short, it's not about the good feeling you get, it's about the good that they receive. Start out on the human level; greet them cordially. Names are an expression of identity and dignity; if opportune, use names, especially to recall them in prayer. Spend some time with them and seek to understand what it is they truly need. After all, most of us can relate to a time where we were grateful for a stranger taking just two minutes to stop and help us.
Those poor of money are not the only kind of person who needs alms (mercy). For as many kinds of poverty that exist, there are at least that many types of alms that can be given. If we slow down enough to look, we will find many poor persons near to us. You only have to go to a nursing home or assisted living complex to see some who have been abandoned and lonely. With the staggering statistics of all kinds of abuse, there are many who suffer a poverty of safety and trust. Given all of the uncertainties of junior high and high school, there are many who have a poverty of self-worth and proper dignity. Many suffer from addictions not just to drugs but also to cellphones, social media, video games, gambling, food, et cetera; they suffer from a poverty of being fulfilled. The alms are different, but the source is the same.
So what about us, the penitent? How is this part of our interior penance? It starts with a self-reflection rooted firmly in the truth. We are sinners. We have made bad choices. We have squandered our gifts. In sorrow, we know of our need to come before God, seeking His forgiveness. Not only is God willing to forgive us, He is ready to pour out more blessings upon us to help us in our need, in our poverty. Thus, recall the parable from Matthew 18:21-35, where the wicked servant received mercy from his master through the forgiveness of a large debt but then turned around and showed no mercy to a servant who had a debt to him. The master was willing to take pity upon wicked servant, but he was appalled that the same servant would not take pity on a fellow servant. Likewise, if we have received mercy and pity from the Lord in our impoverished state when we have repented, we must also seek to show mercy and pity on those also in an impoverished state are in need. Jesus, in His instruction in Luke 6, expounds on this further: “be merciful as your Father is merciful.” Thus, the Church has taught that in showing any mercy, including alms, we act more like our Father, who has mercifully taken pity on us to provide us with rich blessings, which we did not deserve.
After all, to which blessing do we an absolute claim? Do not all good things come from the fount of goodness, the Lord? If we are blessed, should we not bless? Have we been given good things merely to store up and lock away or to be given an opportunity to be more like our Father? In examining all that you have been graciously given, seek to share your many blessings, tangible or intangible, with those who have not.