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“Am I able to look into the face of those who ask me for help?” This is the question Pope Francis put to the more than 40,000 faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square for this Saturday’s Jubilee Audience, looking up from his prepared speech.
The square was packed, as were the squares in front of Rome’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and the Gemelli University Polyclinic Foundation — around 2,000 people including students, professors and medical and administrative staff. In addition, 5,000 members of the Italian Federation of Catholic Weeklies (FISC) were also present to mark the 50th anniversary of its foundation.
For today’s catechesis, the pope drew his inspiration from the passage in the Gospel that reminds faithful not to offer alms to the poor in order to receive praise for their generosity (“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”).
Almsgiving is more than simply giving money hastily without looking the person in the face and without stopping to talk to them to find out what it is they really need. It is not the appearance that counts, but to look into the face of those who are near to us, and who need our help. The Gospel passage we just heard introduces us to an essential aspect of mercy: almsgiving. Almsgiving may seem like a simple thing but we must be careful not to empty this gesture of the enormous significance it carries. Indeed, the term “elemosina” (Italian for “almsgiving”) derives from the Greek word for “mercy.” Almsgiving should therefore be a full expression of mercy. And just as mercy is expressed in all sorts of different ways, so is almsgiving, the aim of which is to offer relief to those in need.
“The duty of almsgiving is as old as the Bible,” the pope recalled. “Sacrifice and almsgiving were two duties a religious person was required to fulfil. There are important pages in the Old Testament, that talk about God’s special attention for the poor, who time and again were the destitute, the foreigners, the orphans and widows.”
Speaking off the cuff, Francis said: “Because God wants his people to look at these brothers; in fact, they are at the very heart of his message: praise the Lord with sacrifice and praise the Lord through almsgiving.”
The pope then criticized those who do not give alms using the excuse that those on the receiving end will simply go and squander the money they have been given: “Some use excuses saying ‘this person will just go and spend the money on wine.’ But if that person feels the need to get drunk, it’s because they see no other way out. Who are you to judge that person for asking you to spare them some change so they can buy a glass of wine?
“At the same time,” the pope added, “we must carefully discern, so that our charity is truly helpful. “In short, almsgiving is an act of love directed toward those we meet; it is an act of sincere care for those who are near to us and who seek our help.”
To illustrate the importance of educating others about charity, Francis talked about something he once witnessed. “I once knew a mother who had three children. One day they were sitting at table, each of them had a breaded steak on their plate. A poor man knocked at the door. Shall we help him? Yes, everyone answered. So the mother cut each of the children’s steaks in half and made a sandwich to give to the poor man.
“We need to give something that makes a difference to us, deprive ourselves of what is ours and get involved with the poor. Parents: educate your children to show this kind of generosity …”
“Let us, then,” Francis concluded, “make the words of the apostle Paul our own: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”