There are three pillars to our Lenten observance: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. While we are pretty good at the first two, many of us could probably use a reminder about the third. 

To help us, the U.S. bishops have offered these suggestions for directing our alms to the poor: 

Fulfilling our duties to the poor, both close to home and around the world, is not “optional.” It is a core duty of our faith. 

In his famous parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that our salvation depends on the compassion that we show to society’s most vulnerable: 

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. … Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Beginning with the Church Fathers, Catholic tradition has always emphasized our radical duties to the poor and marginalized.

The Catechism quotes St. Ambrose of Milan: “The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and a grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them.”

Could our selfish behavior really be described as indirect homicide? Could this really be serious? You had better believe it. To drive that point home, the Catechism puts this discussion under offenses against the fifth commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

In Catholic social teaching, the concern for the least among us is reflected in the principles known as “the preferential option for the poor” and the “universal destination of goods.” 

These principles remind us that God intends the good things of the earth for all, not just the few, and that those who lack these things should be “the focus of particular concern,” not only for our individual consciences, but in our thinking about social policy. 

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church links these principles to our duty to “imitate the life of Christ.” This applies to “our manner of living and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods.”

It also compels us to “embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without health care and, above all, those without hope of a better future” around the world.

Lent is a gift that God gives us to prayerfully take stock of the direction of our finite lives and to focus on what is of ultimate, transcendent importance. We are invited to repent of our sinfulness and answer the universal call to holiness. 

With this in mind, the Lenten pillar of almsgiving should not be given the radical priority it deserves in the life of all of us who follow Christ. As he himself has told us: salvation hangs in the balance.