March 23, 2015

Pope Francis had it right when he told the Ash Wednesday audience, "Alms are given to someone from whom you would not expect to receive anything in return."

Father Martin Carroll, rector of St. Joseph's Basilica, agrees we should help those in need but says it should be done with the aim of fostering social justice.

"What I see for people for Lent is to make sure we help the social agencies. The big need is to the social agencies to meet the needs of the underprovided and the hard times. Here in Edmonton."

He takes his point to one we all share.

"We have all felt the anguish of not knowing what to do when a street person mutters, 'Can you spare some change? I'm really hungry.'" Many of us dig in our pockets and pull out a loonie or toonie.

Carroll offers an alternative to dropping some cash into the begging outstretched hand.

"People can help the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Marian Centre, the Boyle Street Community Services," he said.

"The Marian Centre provides warm food, a meal inside. I think that is much more important – helping them with food and the company of other people instead of giving money to someone we meet on the street. When we give to the agencies we know the money is going to be used in the right way."

Sister Jeannette Filthaut takes giving to another level – the giving of one's self.

"In the past I would give money. But I think almsgiving is more giving of yourself. Giving of your time maybe to someone in a nursing home, giving of your time to someone who is lonely, someone on the street."

Almsgiving is the giving of presence because we live in such an isolated society, explained the sister.

This is hard, she said, and told of going to visit a patient hospitalized with dementia. "It is hard to leave because they mind that."

Cathy Bouchard in Red Deer said yes, her first thought is to give money.

"But with my husband (David) and I, it is more than that. It is the thoughtfulness behind what you are giving."

So they think of the needs of people around them and fast from extras they have during the year – snacks in the evening, a glass of wine or Starbucks.

"We share the finances from that, most often, with Development and Peace. It's being thoughtful about it rather than just doing it."

The ecumenical officer for the Edmonton Archdiocese, Julien Hammond, takes a look back at the origins of the word.


"By definition, almsgiving refers to the giving of money, food, clothes, etc. to poor people. In this way it can resemble philanthropy or charitable giving. However, there are a few ways in which almsgiving differs quite substantially from merely giving charity."

Almsgiving is intended to be a spiritual exercise, an expression and extension of Christ's preferential option for the poor. Just as physical exercise is meant to strengthen muscles and promote a healthy lifestyle, spiritual exercise is meant to shore up our inner strength and promote a virtuous lifestyle.

Hammond takes it further than just giving money.

"Almsgiving is meant to be a penitential exercise – a measure of repentance and renewing our relationship with God and neighbour.

"Perhaps I have been unfair or unkind toward someone or to a group of people. Is there a way that I might make restitution for my unkindness – first through an apology, and second by way of offering material or financial support to them or to the group that I have mistreated."

Attitude is absolutely vital. Are the world's resources just for us?


Hammond is another who says that giving alms does not have to be done with money. We have other gifts we can share – time and talent. He underlines this with Jesus' words:

"'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me'" (Matthew 25.37-40).