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Ask the Register: panhandlers?

Q. Does the Church require me to give money to panhandlers? What is the best way to respond to requests for money from the homeless or others?

A. The parables of Jesus frequently exhort us to give generously to those who ask of us, and to offer charity to those in need. And the witness of Jesus’ life and ministry is a “preferential option” for the poor—a ministry among the poor, and a unique and special love for the poor. 

Pope Francis has frequently said that we should become a “poor Church for the poor.” Catholics have a clear obligation to people in poverty—not only an obligation of charity, but an obligation of justice.

But the best way to offer the “preferential option for the poor” is determined by particular circumstances, and our own prudential judgment. There are times when offering a homeless person a few dollars seems to be the right choice, and times when handing out money may be unwise, or imprudent.

However, the ministry of Jesus also reveals to us that the needs of the homeless begin with the need for real human relationships—for respect, for patient listening or kind words. We should not jeopardize our safety. But when it seems safe, spending a few minutes talking with a person who has asked for money conveys God’s love, and treats a person in accord with his dignity. Offering a gift card for a restaurant, or a bottle of water or a snack is a direct response to a person’s need, and a witness of God’s love. In short, treating a person who is often marginalized as a true brother or sister is the best kind of response we can offer to those who live on the street.

At the same time, we support the needs of the poor when we support Catholic Social Services, and other ministries that offer the broader, more long-term kinds of support that people without a home or in other circumstances often need. Christ calls us to live generously, and we should pray that he makes our hearts generous, and gives us the wisdom to make the right choices in each situation. The prayer for generosity, from St. Ignatius of Loyola, is a great place to begin:

Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will.

Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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