Lenten works of mercy

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

Introduction Essential to our Lenten penance is almsgiving or doing works of mercy.Too often, almsgiving may seem to be a kind of optional Lenten practice, a good work to do, if we can or if it pleases us.The truth is that all of our Lenten observance remains empty if it does not lead us to do works of mercy.Likewise, there can be no true conversion of heart, no sincere interior penance, which is not marked by almsgiving.The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" reminds us of the necessary relationship between prayer and fasting, and almsgiving in the transformation of our hearts, in the union of our hearts with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.In the catechism, we read: "The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom, they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: efforts at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity ‘which covers a multitude of sins’"(n. 1434). It makes good spiritual sense that the more correctly we view ourselves and our relationship with God, the more we will understand the destiny of the earthly goods which God confides to our care.The more we are united with God through prayer and purified of undue attachments to material things through fasting, the more we are inspired and strengthened to imitate God in His love, placing ourselves and our goods at the service of others in selfless love. St. Gregory the Great St. Gregory the Great, abbot of St. Andrew’s Monastery in Rome, was elected to succeed Pope Pelagius II in the year 590.In all sincerity, he tried to avoid assuming the office of Roman Pontiff.He declared that he finally accepted the burden of the service of Successor to St. Peter "with a sick heart" (St. Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care [New York: Newman Press, 1950], pp. 3-4).He fulfilled the responsibilities of Roman Pontiff with such holiness that he was given the title "Great," a title conferred upon very few popes.Pope Gregory the Great wrote a lengthy reflection on the responsibilities of a bishop which is titled in Latin, "Regula Pastoralis."In English, it is called "Pastoral Care," although the title literally means a rule or directives for a pastor.It provides excellent meditations for anyone who is called to give pastoral care and direction to God’s flock, especially for a bishop.It was the work which I used for my meditations on the retreat I made before my episcopal ordination on Jan. 6, 1995.After my appointment as Archbishop of St. Louis, I have taken it up once again and found it so helpful in reflecting upon the duties which God has entrusted to me here. Chapter 20 of St. Gregory’s work takes up the question of how the bishop should admonish the person who is performing a work of mercy.The great Pope Gregory declares in simple terms what must be the attitude of a person who gives from his substance to supply for the needs of others and urges a bishop to instruct his faithful in a way of thinking which may be rightly called Christian stewardship.He writes: "Therefore, those who in pity bestow what is theirs must be admonished to acknowledge that they have been appointed by the heavenly Lord to be the dispensers of temporal means, and to display their humility the more, inasmuch as they realize that what they dispense belongs to others" (Ibid., p.152). The virtue of humility lies at the foundation of our works of mercy.It is a virtue which teaches us to recognize that all we are and have is God’s gift to us for our good and the good of all. Works of mercy, done according to the Heart of Christ, never lead us to pride but rather to humble gratitude for the gift to sustain others from our means. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man, often named for the Latin word for the rich man, Dives, makes clear to us the fundamental importance of humility before our material possessions, so that we become good stewards, sharing from our substance to care for those most in need.The sin of Dives, which merited eternal punishment, was not that he robbed someone or that he gained his wealth dishonestly but that he failed to use his wealth to help others, especially the poor Lazarus (cf.Lk 16:19-31).The parable teaches us how fundamental doing works of mercy or giving alms is to our eternal salvation.If we fail to show the mercy of God in our words and works, we will merit eternal punishment.At the same time, doing the works of mercy is our way to eternal happiness. Our Lord’s parable of the last judgment teaches us that our service of Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned — in short, our brothers and sisters in most need — is our way of salvation (cf. Mt 25:31-46).Clearly, our justice is found in God’s self-sacrificing love alone, in emptying ourselves in the service of others. Corporal and Spiritual Works Our works of mercy or almsgiving are directed to both the spiritual and bodily good of others.Daily, we encounter the needs of our neighbor, both in body and in soul, and are called to address practically and effectively those needs. The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" succinctly summarizes the principal works of mercy, what we have traditionally called the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: "The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently.The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.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" (n.2447). The simple daily reflection upon our fulfillment of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy helps us very much to see how the goods with which God has blessed each of us belong to others, in the words of St. Gregory, and how we, as good stewards, must bestow them on others in their need. The truth is that, if everyone in the Church generously gave from his or her substance for the good of the whole Body of Christ, all of our brothers and sisters would know the compassion of Christ in their need. Because so many of us fail to follow Christ in caring for the needs of one another, many suffer and the mission of the Church goes unfulfilled. There is no one of us who is lacking in riches for the care of our brothers and sisters in need.Even the materially poor person can visit the sick and imprisoned and is rich in spiritual goods to bestow upon brothers and sisters.The comment of our Lord Jesus on the widow’s mite reminds us that God has made all of us rich for carrying out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (cf. Lk 21:1-4). Our Lord compassionately teaches about the great temptation which comes to the person who is rich in temporal goods, the temptation to think that the goods belong to him to do with as he pleases.To the rich young man who declared that he had kept all of the commandments, our Lord stated: "If you seek perfection, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor.You will then have treasure in heaven" (Mt 19:21). The Gospel account goes on to say that the rich young man left the company of Jesus with sadness, "for his possessions were many" (Mt 19:22). Lenten Almsgiving Our Lenten practice of almsgiving is meant to train our hearts and hands to be always generous in sharing from our substance to sustain our brothers and sisters in need.Even as Lent is a training time in all of the virtues, so, too, it strengthens us in doing works of mercy, spiritual and corporal. Certainly, if we as parents or teachers have failed to give time to our children to instruct them and discipline them, then Lent is a time to develop a strong habit of spending time with our children.If we are alienated from someone, it is time to seek reconciliation, even if we are only able to accomplish it, for the moment, through prayer for one who needs our forgiveness and will not accept it, or needs our counsel and will not receive it.All of works of mercy begin and end in prayer.It is in prayer that we come to know the immeasurable love of God for us and of our call to share in His mission of love.At the same time, in our daily prayer and through our participation in the Holy Eucharist, we beg for God’s blessing upon all of our works of mercy. In my first weeks of service as Archbishop of St. Louis, I have come to know about the many works of mercy which the faithful of the Archdiocese are carrying out in their homes, parishes, schools and other institutions.I think, for instance, of the work of the parish St. Vincent de Paul societies, of the Catholic schools in the archdiocese and of our Catholic Charities.A need of which I am becoming increasingly aware is the provision of a Catholic-school education in the areas in which the children of families need so keenly a Catholic education.The only way in which the Church will be able to carry out her mission of Catholic education on behalf of the poorest of the poor is good stewardship, the strong support of her charitable, education and missionary works by all of the faithful of the archdiocese. Conclusion Our Lenten almsgiving is at the very heart of our Christian life.It is not some optional extra in a rich variety of spiritual works.May our Lenten prayer, especially our participation in the Holy Eucharist and the regular confession of our sins, lead us to carry out the works of God’s mercy on behalf of all who are in need.May our Lenten fasting dispose us to view all our goods as gifts given to us as stewards, that we may use them to assist the poor. St. Vincent de Paul, our patron, pray for us, so that we may imitate your Christlike love.

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