The traditional three pillars of the Catholic Lenten observance are Prayer, Penance or Fasting, and Almsgiving.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to these three as “acts of religion” flowing from the New Law of Christ, the Gospel. (CCC no. 1969). Found in the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers of the Church, they express conversion in relation to oneself (fasting), to God (prayer), and to others (almsgiving.) (CCC no. 1434)
In a sermon by the 5th century bishop, St. Peter Chrysologus, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (which he calls mercy) are presented as closely interconnected elements of the Christian life, so interdependent that he says, “If you have only one of them, or not all together, you have nothing.” (Office of Readings, Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent).
Lent is a fitting time for making resolutions that deepen our holiness. After examining our life, we can seek to enhance our prayerful relationship with God. We can fast and do other penances which deny ourselves and strengthen our interior discipline. We must likewise look for ways to express our charity toward others.
Almsgiving could include making donations to the poor, and this may indeed be a meaningful expression for us. The Church’s long-established principles of tithing help us fulfill our obligations to contribute to the support of the works of the Church: one of the Precepts of the Church which oblige us (see CCC nos. 2041-2043). Remember also Jesus’ affirmation of the poor widow who gave her last two pennies. ““Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all…” (Lk 21:3; Mk 12:43)
Reflecting on what St. Peter Chrysologus calls ‘mercy’ may inspire in us more opportunities to fulfill this Christian goal with renewed attention during Lent.
There are so many ways that we can fulfill this Gospel mandate of generosity. In St. Matthew’s Gospel we are shown a glimpse of the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31ff.) “When the Son of man comes in His glory, …, with all the nations assembled before Him.” Here our Lord identifies Himself with those we have served and with those whom we have neglected. “Whatsoever you do to these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What you failed to do …., you failed to do for me. All the acts of kindness proposed here, we can use as our examination of conscience.
The works of almsgiving, or mercy, are not only for Lent. At any and all times, we can reach out in love to others. Whom do we know who is alone? Perhaps a relative or neighbor would be encouraged by a phone call or visit. With what co-worker – or family member - are we at odds? Can we renew our efforts to act with forgiveness, or reestablish peace?
When we give alms; when we act in mercy, let us remember to connect it, as St Peter Chrysologus recommends, with prayer and self-denial . To “love our neighbor as our self,” is Christ’s great command which is inseparable from an authentic love of God. (Mt 22:37-40)
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The Corporal Works of Mercy are:
- To feed the hungry;
- To give drink to the thirsty;
- To clothe the naked;
- To harbor the harborless; (shelter the homeless)
- To visit the sick;
- To ransom the captive; (visit the imprisoned)
- To bury the dead.
The spiritual Works of Mercy are:
- To instruct the ignorant;
- To counsel the doubtful;
- To admonish sinners;
- To bear wrongs patiently;
- To forgive offences willingly;
- To comfort the afflicted;
- To pray for the living and the dead.