Almsgiving and the challenge of encounter


In the fading days of summer, Kiwi Catholics know that another season looms — Lent, with its increased focus on prayer, almsgiving and fasting, in preparation for Easter. 

St Augustine described fasting and almsgiving as “the two wings of prayer”, because they are signs of humility and charity. But these two qualities were in short supply recently when a prominent New Zealander described a person seen begging on the street
as an eyesore and a disgrace.

While there is ongoing debate on the best ways for public authorities to handle the issues of street begging and homelessness, there is also the issue of how individuals should interact with beggars and the homeless whom they encounter.

For Catholics there are several things to consider. On the one hand, there is the imperative, mentioned many times in the Bible, to give alms to the poor. It is
part and parcel of being a Christian; it is one of the corporal works of mercy.

This might mean supporting institutions and apostolates which offer aid and support.

But when a Catholic encounters a beggar on the street, a series of questions arise — is this person genuinely needy, or just panhandling for money for drugs or alcohol? Is the person part of an organised group of professional beggars? Will my giving to him
or her merely further enable an ongoing problem, keeping it on the streets?

The reality is that most Catholics will not be equipped during what are often fleeting encounters to make assessments of the “virtue” of the persons before them. (Making an
assessment of the “virtue” of the society which has pushed such people to the periphery might be a more worthy option).

Some Catholics, with time and resources, might assist that person to a charity where they have access to food and drink — or a bed for the night.

Others might give the person food and drink directly.

These are all praiseworthy actions, but are not always practical or possible.

Writing on this issue a few years ago, US priest Fr Jay Toborowsky stated that when he went into the city, he always carried some cash in his pockets in case he came across a beggar.

In the end, he said, “what they do with the dollars is on their conscience, not mine”.

In more than a few cases in New Zealand, people who drop a few coins in the hat or box of a beggar on the footpath receive a blessing — the person says “God Bless You” in response.

In the end, no matter what the recipient does with the money, it is the donor who is blessed.

And one of the reasons for that blessedness is that the donor at least encountered the person, and acknowledged their existence.

That person is made in the image and likeness of God, as we all are. But as Pope Francis said in an Angelus message earlier this year, the homeless are struck not only by cold, but also by indifference.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Recently many hearts were moved by the coverage of the simple act of kindness of a newly married couple in Auckland sharing their wedding cake with a homeless man.

The recipient of the couple’s generosity, Miller Patane, said not many people are kind to him.

He also offered a simple yet pertinent observation: “Don’t judge people, because every man has a story.”

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Michael Otto

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