Almsgiving: missing piece of the 'Lenten triad'

About a month ago in this space I highlighted the role of fasting during Lent, which was also the focus of Pope Benedict XVI's Lenten message to Christians this year. The following week, I wrote generally about Lenten prayer.

That leaves just one piece missing from the Lenten triad: giving alms, defined as providing material assistance, motivated by charity, to the needy.

With the current state of the U.S. and global economy, we don't have to look that hard to find opportunities for almsgiving.

One prime example in this issue is Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international aid arm (See Pages 9-12). Founded in 1943 to help Europeans after World War II, the organization has grown to more than 100 countries and has program expenses of more than half a billion dollars a year. It also has one of the highest ratings of non-profits for its financial management; just 6 percent of its revenue goes to fundraising, advertising and administration.

Our story looks at the regions around the world in which CRS operates, with snapshots of what they do there. Catholic Americans should be proud (humbly, of course); we do a lot of good in the world.

I had a chance to see the work of CRS up close when I traveled, on assignment for Vatican Radio, to Kosovo in June 1999, just after the end of NATO's bombing campaign to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing of the local Albanian population.

An Italian colleague and I made our way via a World Food Program flight to Albania's capital and then by Swiss military helicopter to Kosovo's southern border. There we hitched a ride with a convoy of CRS relief trucks that climbed through a rough mountain pass into the bomb-cratered province. Over the next few days, my colleague and I hired interpreters and interviewed Kosovars, sending back our radio reports via satellite phone.

CRS was one of the lead relief agencies on the ground, and it was working in very challenging circumstances. Relief to outlying villages was slowed by concerns of mines and booby traps left by retreating Serbian forces. On one delivery of food that I accompanied into the hilly farmland, rebels with machine guns watched our every move. But the distribution kept on, and with an amazing degree of organizational efficiency.

You can also find many other opportunities for almsgiving closer to home.

A couple of ideas: With abortion returning to the fore of the "culture wars," why not find out what sort of crisis pregnancy services are offered in your area, and then pick one to support financially? Or, with joblessness soaring, why not make an effort to contribute regularly to a local food bank?

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