Dear Fr. Zagloba,
No, I thought your homily was great! It really hit the right tone for kicking off our stewardship campaign. I’m sorry to hear that someone disagreed with you so strongly on your understanding of almsgiving. I don’t think what they said was either correct or kind.
You were definitely not promoting the Prosperity Gospel. You weren’t selling indulgences. You were pointing out the very clear statements that Jesus made about how good almsgiving is for the person who gives.
I do think that it’s important to make clear the huge chasm of difference between the evil that is the sin of ‘Simony’ and the spiritual and practical benefits of almsgiving. They’re really as different as prostitution and marriage.
YOU CAN’T BUY HOLINESS (or holy things for that matter)!
Simon Magus, who gives us the name for the sin of ‘Simony’, tried to buy the Holy Spirit from the apostles. He saw the works they were doing, most especially laying on hands to confer the Holy Spirit, and thought that this was some commodity that he could buy. St. Peter rebuked him fiercely for attempting to buy the gift of God.
‘Simony’ suggests that holiness and the gifts of God are things that you can go pick up at Walmart. It’s nonsense, and has been suppressed and rejected since the earliest days of the Church.
The spiritual and temporal benefits of Almsgiving are a totally different matter. When we give alms to the Church or to the poor, we are not buying holiness. We are doing something that is holy. We are participating in holiness. And in a very real sense, we are encountering holiness in the Person of Christ as embodied in the Church and in the poor.
THE MOST DISASTROUS CAPITAL CAMPAIGN IN HISTORY
Modern Catholics have a real difficulty talking about how almsgiving is good for us. We got it mixed up with selling indulgences and threw out the baby with the bath water. Before going any further, I need to point out the root of this confusion.
I’m talking about Johann Tetzel, the poor fundraising friar who ended up sparking the wrath of Martin Luther. I don’t think historians have ever looked at poor Johann’s story through a fundraiser’s eyes, but I think it sheds some light on the story. Little Johann grows up with a burning desire to be a preacher. He embraces a life of evangelical poverty and study by joining the Dominican Order. In his mind, he’s thinking that someday he will follow in the footsteps of the great founder St. Dominic, or the legendary St. Thomas or St. Vincent Ferrer.
Instead, they made him a fundraiser. “Go, therefore, and raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica”. Not the mission he thought he signed up for. But, like an obedient Dominican, he takes up his cross and searches for the best possible reason for people to donate money. He decides to focus on the spiritual benefits conferred by almsgiving. He perhaps goes a bit overboard, depending on who’s version of the story you’re reading.
So a poorly planned capital campaign, BOOM, ignites the Protestant reformation. Fr. Johann tried to defend his preaching and teaching, suffered a nervous breakdown over the whole affair, and died in sorrow. Let this be a warning to us to do our homework before trying to start a capital campaign. Bad fundraising can have BAD consequences.
Now, I am not trying to pick a fight regarding the practices surrounding indulgences at that time. I know there were in fact real abuses. Any student of history knows that. But the abuse, the misuse, the corruption of the real nature of almsgiving does not in any way abolish the very real good that comes from it.
IT’S ALL ABOUT GIVING
The difference between simony and almsgiving is the difference between a business transaction and the mutual exchange of gifts. When I’m at a store buying my wife something nice for her birthday, this is a business transaction. I give them money in exchange for something that will hopefully delight my wife. When I give my wife the gift, this is NOT a business transaction. It might please my wife very much, and in her joy at the gift she might give me a great big kiss to say thank you. She might even go so far as to bake some of my favorite cookies.
I am not purchasing her affection with my gifts. I am displaying my own affection. She is not compensating me for my gifts. She is responding with an affectionate gesture of her own. Marriage is supposed to be a complete gift of self for the whole of life. It is, in fact, made up of lots of little gifts back and forth.
The ‘gift’ is at the heart of the economy of the Kingdom of God. We give to God some little trifle out of our poverty and He responds by giving to us out of His infinite riches. I give my children food, clothing, shelter. Do my children pay for this when they give me a piece of finger painted artwork? NO! It is their gift to me, even as I give everything freely to them.
Almsgiving is not only good, it is good FOR YOU!
Our gifts to the Church and to the poor do not purchase a golden ticket to heaven. No, they are (or should be) a gift to God who has already given us everything. But this is not the end of the story… Jesus reveals to us that Our Father will not be outdone! In the exchange of gifts, He always insists on having the First and the Last Word. First, He so loves us that He gives us His Word. And last, at the end of our mortal life, He gives back to us 100 times what we have given Him, plus eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that they know You and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
You see, God is the wealthy father who lavishly feasts the return of his prodigal son, and also tells his obedient older son to enjoy his wealth. God loves to give, and He wants us to share in and participate in His generosity. Like a good Father, he has pointed out that He will reward the kind of behavior that is pleasing to Him.
You don’t have to fear accusations of preaching the prosperity gospel or selling indulgences. Preaching almsgiving follows directly on the way that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God. You are standing on a firm foundation of scripture and tradition. God wants us to practice generosity.
Nathan, The Almoner
P.S. Look no further than St. Peter’s Basilica itself to see the blessed fruit of almsgiving. Countless pilgrims and future converts have experienced an encounter with the Risen One and the Church that He founded in that blessed place. From one fundraiser to another, I thank Fr. Johann for his hard work and suffering. I hope to visit it myself someday.
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