As for Christian charity, this is not philanthropy, but a virtue that "demands interior conversion to love of God and neighbour" according to the logic of the gift of self, rather than the gift of things.
The meaning and value of charity are the themes that Benedict XVI proposes for reflection in this year's message for Lent, made public today.
In the document, the pope recalls that the practice of almsgiving constitutes, together with prayer and fasting, the efforts that accompany the faithful in the interior renewal that should characterise this period of the liturgical year. Almsgiving "represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods", which Benedict XVI calls a "constant temptation".
But giving is not enough, no matter the amount. What the message highlights is the fundamental importance of the spiritual attitude of the one who performs acts of charity. "If", he writes, "we do not have as our goal God’s glory and the real well being of our brothers and sisters, looking rather for a return of personal interest or simply of applause, we place ourselves outside of the Gospel vision. In today’s world of images, attentive vigilance is required, since this temptation is great. Almsgiving, according to the Gospel, is not mere philanthropy: rather it is a concrete expression of charity, a theological virtue that demands interior conversion to love of God and neighbour, in imitation of Jesus Christ, who, dying on the cross, gave His entire self for us".
Exemplary, in this sense, is the Gospel episode of the widow's mite, and her giving of the only money she had left. "Her tiny and insignificant coin becomes an eloquent symbol: this widow gives to God not out of her abundance, not so much what she has, but what she is. Her entire self.
"We find this moving passage inserted in the description of the days that immediately precede Jesus’ passion and death, who, as Saint Paul writes, made Himself poor to enrich us out of His poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8,9); He gave His entire self for us. Lent, also through the practice of almsgiving, inspires us to follow His example. In His school, we can learn to make of our lives a total gift; imitating Him, we are able to make ourselves available, not so much in giving a part of what we possess, but our very selves.
"Cannot the entire Gospel", the pope asks, "be summarized perhaps in the one commandment of love? The Lenten practice of almsgiving thus becomes a means to deepen our Christian vocation. In gratuitously offering himself, the Christian bears witness that it is love and not material richness that determines the laws of his existence. Love, then, gives almsgiving its value"; Benedict XVI concludes, "it inspires various forms of giving, according to the possibilities and conditions of each person".
A concrete example of charity in this sense was offered, during the presentation of the message, by Hans-Peter Röthlin, international president of Aid to the Church in Need.
He emphasised in particular how Werenfried van Staaten, the founder of this organisation who died five years ago - who "in the course of his long life collected about two billion euro - in his Spiritual Directives "does not use the word 'alms', but speaks of offerings. Beyond the question of the expressions that he used, the fact remains that most of his "benefactors" were, and still are, ordinary people who do not possess great wealth, but instead resemble the widow in the Gospel who secretly offered her alms in the temple, and then went on her way. In article 36, [Fr van Staaten] says something extremely important: that those who administer alms 'must never forget that they are not administering money alone, but above all the charity of our benefactors'.
Here we find ourselves at the central point of the Holy Father's message, which could be subtitled: The secret of almsgiving is charity".
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