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Photo: Felix Carroll

A member of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Mercy, from Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bristow, Va., ministers to the poor as part of the ministry's "Feeding with Mercy" program in Washington, D.C.

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What are your plans for Lent?

Pope Benedict XVI has a suggestion. In his Lenten address released last week, he urged almsgiving — the giving of material goods or financial assistance to the needy.

He said:

For this year's Lenten message, I wish to spend some time reflecting on the practice of almsgiving, which 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.

Probably the reason the Pope puts so much emphasis on almsgiving is not only because it helps the needy, but because it helps us. He knows that it helps to prime our hearts to receive the Lord's graces. Through almsgiving, we "train ourselves spiritually," the Pope says. How so? Almsgiving helps us to overcome constant temptations, "teaching us to respond to our neighbor's needs and to share with others whatever we possess through divine goodness," Pope Benedict says.

Furthermore, by growing in charity, the Holy Father says, we "recognize in the poor Christ Himself."

That reminds me of a story in St. Faustina's life. One cold and rainy day a poor young man — with bare feet and threadbare clothes — came to her convent gate begging for food. Sister Faustina found some soup. She reheated it and crumbled some bread into it. After the young man ate the soup, He revealed to her His true identity. He was Jesus Christ Himself.

Then He vanished from her sight. But, later, she heard these words in her soul: "My daughter, the blessings of the poor who bless Me as they leave this gate have reached My ears. And your compassion, within the bounds of obedience, has pleased Me, and this is why I came down from My throne — to taste the fruits of your mercy" (Diary of St. Faustina, 1312).

Christ made Himself poor so that we may become spiritually rich. Literally — that's what He did right before St. Faustina's very eyes!

Interestingly, the Pope has titled his Lenten message, "Almsgiving, According to the Gospel, Is Not Mere Philanthropy." If it's not mere philanthropy, then what is it? Christ Himself explained to St. Faustina. He said works of mercy are to be performed "out of love for Me" (Diary of St. Faustina, 742).

But in order for us to do anything out of love for Christ, something revolutionary must happen within our hearts. Christ taught: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me" (Lk 9:23). How do we deny ourselves? By surrendering our vices, our pride, our sins, and searching our hearts and deciding who or what sits at its throne. Are they material things? Is it personal ambition? Or is it God?

Hint: the proper answer should start with a "G." But it's not always easy for us to put God at the center of our hearts. That's where Lent comes in. During these 40 days of Lent, we are especially called to experience deeper intimacy with our Savior and to receive the great gift of salvation He is offering us.

Through almsgiving, we strive to be instruments of God's will. We commit ourselves to playing an active role in the redemption of the world. Like Mary did, at the foot of her Son's cross, we become a partner in the Passion — dying to self so that we may live in God and then serve our neighbors.

And as you probably know, putting mercy into action is not an option; it's a obligation. Jesus tells St. Faustina:

You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse yourself from it. Even the strongest faith is of no avail without works (Diary, 742).

As Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, writes in his book "The Divine Mercy Message and Devotion", "Repeatedly the Scriptures remind us that the measure we use for others is the measure God will use for us (Lk 6:38), for He will indeed 'forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us' (Mt 6:12-14). 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy' (Mt 5:7), but 'judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy' (Jas 2:13). The parables of the Good Samaritan, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Unforgiving Servant all demonstrate this essential truth that only if we give mercy can we hope to receive it; for we will be judged on the basis of our merciful actions toward others: 'I was hungry and you gave me food' (Mt 25:35-46)."

Having said that, the Pope's Lenten message comes with a warning. A feature of Christian almsgiving is that "it must be hidden." That is to say, we mustn't call attention to our good deeds, otherwise we deny glory to the One truly deserving of it, the One who died for our sins in order to save us.

The Holy Father says:

Everything, then, must be done for God's glory and not our own. This understanding, dear brothers and sisters, must accompany every gesture of help to our neighbor, avoiding that it becomes a means to make ourselves the center of attention. If, in accomplishing a good deed, 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. ... There is little use in giving one's personal goods to others if it leads to a heart puffed up in vainglory: for this reason, the one, who knows that God "sees in secret" and in secret will reward, does not seek human recognition for works of mercy

As we begin Lent, let's follow the Pope's call and pay special attention to the poor among us and respond to their needs. In this way, we may lovingly echo the Gospel message: "As you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did to Me" (Mt 25:35-40). In doing so, we have the opportunity to meet Christ face to face.

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