February 24, 2016

Almsgiving and Creative Ways to Give Alms

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *
Almsgiving and Creative Ways to Give Alms

Despite Gospel counsels about almsgiving, this ancient practice can arouse negative feelings. Every day whether by phone or mail, agencies plead for donations. To those in extreme indigence like The Bowery Mission, immediate relief must come. Still, you can almost read people’s thoughts: ‘Do they think we’re human ATM machines?’ 

Americans, and certainly Catholics, are generous people. The Church has a 2,000-year tradition of caring for the needy, a tradition bolstered by papal encyclicals like Rerum Novarum and patristic writings. St. Lawrence pointed to the poor, saying: “They are treasures in whom is Christ, in whom is faith.”  

Yet, extortionists like bona fide mendicants compete with legitimate organizations seeking to care for the needy.  The Apostolic Constitutions (4th c) warns that “Alms must not be given to the malicious, intemperate, or the lazy, lest a premium should be set on vice.”

Three Types of Giving: Almsgiving, Stewardship, and Philanthropy

Strictly speaking, almsgiving is offering money, food, or other material help to the needy. It is practiced out of concern for the neighbor, thus fulfilling the Lord’s mandate to perform the corporal works of mercy. The word alms comes from the Old English, ælmysse, ælmesse, which in turn is rooted in the Latin eleemosyna and Greek ele?mosun?.  Almsgiving is synonymous with mercy and compassion—being attuned to the suffering heart. 

Weekly stewardship, tithing, or donating to a house of worship helps clergy of every denomination do the work of God in practical ways. Chartres Cathedral (12th-13th c) was built  by craftsmen and the community.  All participated in its construction, including the animals who dragged heavy carts of stone to the construction site.  Chartres was a labor of love.

Philanthropy is sharing wealth for the good of society.  Most often, the donation identifies the purpose for which it is made, for example, medicine, education, or the local community.

Almsgiving in Contemporary Life

Christians give according to their means.  No two families are alike.  Today, many families live from pay check to pay check with their finances stretched to the last penny. Giving alms is personal to every person and every family, and it may call for adaptation expressed in forms other than in money.  Didn’t St. Peter tell the crowds: “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have, I give you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 3:6)? 

Volunteerism

If it is impossible to give alms over and above weekly donations in church, then Christians should be alert to exercise charity in other direct, immediate, and personal ways.  

In the ministry of volunteerism, there are hundreds of creative ways to explore.  It may be helping children to read, working as a hospital aide, helping the homebound and the blind, comforting the lonely or depressed.  These are only a few suggestions, and they are all forms of creative almsgiving. After all, time is money. 

The Gospel pleas, counsels, and commands remain as true in 2016 as they were in ancient Christianity.  Tender mercy is basic to almsgiving, for “whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we are doing to and for the Lord.”

Photo credit: www.shutterstock.com 

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.