March 7, 2014


Self-denial and almsgiving for Lent

“He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

That’s the theme of Pope Francis’ Lenten message this year, a paraphrase of what St. Paul wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians.

We know that the Church encourages us to observe Lent especially in three ways—through more prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Pope Francis has elected to emphasize the third of those practices, which is not surprising considering the numerous times he has stressed his desire that the Church should be “poor and for the poor.” He did this especially in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) released last November.

In his Lenten message, he writes, “In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.”

He draws a distinction between poverty and destitution, saying that destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope. And he says that there are three types of destitution: material, what we think of as poverty; moral, which consists of slavery to sin and vice; and spiritual, which we experience when we turn away from God and reject his love.

He encourages us to “imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty.” He notes that Lent is a fitting time for self-denial, and he says, “We would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.”

The pope also reminds us that no self-denial is real without a dimension of penance, and he says, “I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”

We suggest that our readers take the pope’s words to heart this Lent, prayerfully discover something they can give up, and contribute what they would have spent to a charity that serves the poor. Perhaps this could be one fewer meal at a restaurant each week, or giving up lunch one, or even two, days a week. That would give self-denial a dimension of penance.

As for where your charitable contributions might go to serve the poor, the opportunities, unfortunately, appear limitless. At the international level, we suggest beginning with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the U.S. bishops’ official international humanitarian agency that serves the poor and suffering people in 91 countries. Ninety-three percent of contributions to CRS go directly to programs that serve the poor.

Since 1977, Operation Rice Bowl has been CRS’s Lenten program. It includes a cardboard rice bowl families can use to collect their Lenten alms. Today it also includes daily reflections, weekly prayers, meatless recipes and stories of hope from around the world. To learn more about CRS and its rice bowl, log on to

There are other worthy charities doing great things for the poor. Food for the Poor, for example, is the largest international relief organization in the United States, working primarily in 17 countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. Founded in1982 as a Catholic agency, today it calls itself an interdenominational Christian ministry.

There are, though, plenty of opportunities to serve the poor right here in Indiana. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has offices in Bloomington, Terre Haute, Tell City, New Albany and Indianapolis.

Among people served are the poor, the hungry, the homeless, pregnant women, the elderly, neglected children, and anyone else in need. Last year, Catholic Charities in Indianapolis served 44,331 children, families and seniors.

There is also the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which provides food, clothing and furniture to individuals and families in need. The council in Indianapolis is operated 100 percent by volunteers. It operates the largest food pantry in the Midwest, serving an average of 3,000 households per week. It also provides monthly payments to the Beggars for the Poor, the Cathedral Kitchen and Holy Family Shelter to help them in their ministries to the poor.

These are only a few possibilities for your almsgiving. However, may we suggest, too, that you not only send the money you save from your self-denials, but think about volunteering to serve the poor directly by helping these agencies in their ministries?

—John F. Fink

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