What is Almsgiving?

By Engr. Carlos V. Cornejo

Almsgiving is not just confined to giving money to the needy or to the Church but to “relieve others of their need both material and spiritual” as St. Thomas Aquinas would define it.  The Church lists down 14 alms deeds or works of mercy and here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about it. “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.”  (CCC 2447)

This list goes back to the Middle Ages but could still be applied today for the needs of others will always be the same since human nature will always be the same, as book of Ecclesiastes would say, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Traditional lists such as this are helpful because they make the general concept very specific.  Second, it helps avoid confusion because the Church gives the clear standard, otherwise we just might make our own list that would fit our own inclinations more than the needs of others.

The motive for doing the works of mercy has to be double:  human and divine, natural and supernatural, horizontal and vertical.  St. Thomas Aquinas says it should be “out of compassion (for the needy) and for God’s sake.”  Or it should be done for love of God and love of neighbor.  The two greatest commandments.

The corporal works of mercy can be done on our own initiative such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked (example: giving away clothes to fire victims), visiting the sick and imprisoned (friends and relatives) and burying the dead.  Sheltering the homeless would usually be carried out by Catholic institutions that cares for orphans and the elderly who have no relatives to care for them.  We can help these institutions financially and would have done this corporal work of mercy in an indirect but nevertheless effective way.

The seven-spiritual works of mercy on the other hand are, to: (1) to instruct the ignorant, (2) to counsel the doubtful, (3) to comfort the sorrowful, (4) to correct the sinner (5) to forgive injuries, (6) to bear the wrongs of others patiently and (7) to pray for all.  We all can carry out the seven except perhaps instructing the ignorant, which is a job that is reserved to teachers at school who get paid for doing it, but would also have the disadvantage of stricter responsibility from God based on the passage of James 3:1.  Instructing the ignorant would be best served if we teach catechism to kids and adult alike.  But again, if you don’t have the knack for teaching you can just opt for the other spiritual works of mercy.

The spiritual and corporal works of mercy is not something optional for the followers of Christ, because our love has to be shown in deeds.  Love is not just an inner feeling but shows its presence by external and visible deeds.  And the best way to show that love for our neighbor is through the works of mercy done with an inner motive of love for God, a God who manifests Himself through our neighbor.  “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)


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