From the Pastor: Almsgiving or Almsdeeds?
During my preparations leading up to Lent, I noticed something that had never caught my attention before. In almost all of the newer writings about Lenten penances, the three “biggies” are always listed as fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Those are the three with which I grew up. During Lent we pray more, we limit our consumption of various foods and drinks, and we give to the needy the money saved from our fasts. That is the norm as I have known it since childhood. But this year I started noticing that in the older books the three biggies were quite often listed somewhat differently, as fasting, prayer, and almsdeeds. Hmmm... What gives?
I am not sure when the change occurred in our English language usage of almsgiving completely replacing almsdeeds but changing the one word has certainly affected my own Lents for my entire lifetime, for “giving” was the exclusive “deed” I practiced as I prayed and fasted. I remember filling up those little “rice bowls” for Catholic Relief Services with spare change during Lent, from childhood through my college years. I remember having “soup days” at church where we would have a bowl of thin, tasteless soup and piece of bread in the church hall and pay the same as if it were a full meal, with the profit going to some homeless shelter and us all feeling good about being united in hunger with the less fortunate. I remember as a young adult trying to determine just how much money I would have spent during Lent, had I not been fasting and abstaining, on my regular groceries and restaurant meals and alcohol and donating it to a mission or some charitable organization, and realizing that it was not a whole lot of money that I saved, because Lent only has two days of fasting, I rarely ate out, and the food I ate at home was pretty inexpensive stuff all year long. I also remember passing on such Lenten almsgiving advice to my parishioners after I became a priest. And only now do I ever remember noticing that “traditional” writers don’t limit the idea of Lenten alms to giving money to the poor. (Remember, to me and my generation, “traditional” means anything from the hippie generation! If it was pre- 1970’s it wasn’t considered “traditional”, it was considered “old-fashioned”. I really grew up believing that every Catholic thing my family/parish did when I was a child was either the way the Church had always done it or that it was an improvement on how the Church used to do it.)
But this year, for whatever reason, I kept noticing trusted authors of old (like Abbot Gueranger [+1875], Venerable Louis of Granada [+1588], St. Robert Bellarmine [+1621], and Fr. Leonard Goffine [+1719]) writing about almsdeeds. The deeds part of it, not the giving part of almsgiving, was getting my attention. Usually when I have a question about the Catholic Faith which needs some clarification I turn to the Catechism. But in the new Catechism there is no mention of almsdeeds and it instead uses the familiar threefold penances of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. So I turned to my backup source, St. Thomas Aquinas. Jackpot! In the Summa Theologica, question 32 of the second part of the second part, deals with almsdeeds. In the English translation the two words are used interchangeably in his answer, but sometimes almsdeeds is much more apropos than almsgiving. For instance, in article two he writes about the “seven corporal almsdeeds, namely, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, to bury the dead” and the “seven spiritual alms (note: here he uses just plain alms), namely, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to reprove the sinner, to forgive injuries, to bear with those who trouble and annoy us, and to pray for all”! Yes, what we now commonly call the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, he calls the works of almsdeeds. Of course, there is a fuller explanation in there as to why and how this is so, but I will leave it at that. It just makes the last of the threefold Lenten penances so much more meaningful to see it as more than simply giving money to the poor, as efficacious as that is. Going back into the CCC, paragraph 2447, in dealing with the works of mercy just mentioned, states that “Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.”
So, in retrospect, what I was doing for all these years was not nothing; it was quite useful for both me and the recipients as well as pleasing to God. But it was also done with nary a thought as to how it was only part of, and, dare I say, the easiest part of, fulfilling the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Now I know I must do more. And now you know it as well...
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka