Lent is time to pay special attention to almsgiving
Now that we are in the season of Lent, many of us give special attention to almsgiving. As a form of almsgiving, the ethical imperative to care for the poor is a value reflected in the Gospels and in our Catholic social justice traditions. However, even something as virtuous as almsgiving should be handled according to the principles of Christian Stewardship.
Two CS principles seem to be especially related to the practice of giving. The first is for us to share what we have generously. This principle gives us guidance as we consider how much or what to give.
The second CS principle related to giving is that we preserve God's gifts and return them to him with an increase. It reminds us that everything we have in our custody comes from God and is ours only for a time. So, it's not a matter of keeping something for ourselves. It is only a matter of how soon we will let go of it and whether we will do so willingly and cheerfully — keeping in mind that it was never ours to keep.
This principle's teaching points are illustrated well in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In this parable, the servants are expected to be industrious with the funds left in their care and, at a minimum, return the principle amount to their master with interest. One of the central themes of this parable is that, as God's stewards, we have a responsibility for what we do with his gifts.
And God has an expectation that we will make good use of his gifts — preserving them and generating some manner of increase or dividend. It should be evident that we must share God's provision with wisdom and prudence — to safeguard it and ensure that it is used for its intended purposes — at least to the best of our abilities.
The bishops have given us further guidance to clarify our moral responsibility for the actions of individuals and entities to which we lend our support. When we give gifts of money or material support to a charitable organization, for instance, USCCB writings seem to indicate that we bear a moral responsibility for the actions of that agent. ("Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," paragraph 34).
We cannot simply discharge all responsibility because we are not the acting agent. The fact remains that our support empowers the agent to take action. So, we bear some responsibility for what that agent does by virtue of our support. My intention is not to make the act of giving burdensome or onerous. However, by the same token, neither should it be done in a thoughtless or cavalier manner.
It is true there are reasonable limits to what we can know about any charitable agency to which we contribute — and we cannot be held responsible for information which is beyond the scope of what is reasonably available to the general public. This concept also applies to giving directly to persons in need. We have limited time, funds, information and opportunities. Given those constraints, we must do our best to perform due diligence, evaluate the information available, make prudent choices and then check back, if possible.
I am reminded of Bishop Ken Untener's prayer, delivered by Cardinal John Francis Dearden at a Mass of remembrance for Archbishop Oscar Romero. Paraphrasing here: When we give, we are not the master builder. We may not see the ultimate results of our giving. We are only called to do what we are called to do.
Even so, we don't close our eyes and ears, and discard our judgment when we give. We use the faculties with which God has blessed us. We take counsel of the Holy Spirit. Then, we step out in faith and take action to contribute to God's unfolding kingdom here in this world. By God's grace, our gifts — grand or small — given in the right spirit and with good CS, will achieve the good we intend. Amen.
(Walt Sears is a lay ecclesial minister in the Diocese of Oakland.)
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