Bishop's Column

Lent, chocolate and almsgiving

This column is the third by Bishop Conley in a series about the Lenten practices of penance, fasting and almsgiving.

Blessed Mother Teresa loved chocolate.

During her lifetime, this fact was well known and many people gave her chocolate as a gift.

But a profound experience with the poor of Calcutta, India, where she lived, caused her to give away nearly all the chocolate she was ever given.

The story is a simple one. Mother Teresa was planning a trip to Ethiopia. Calcutta's children, who themselves lived in unimaginable poverty, came to her and asked whether Ethiopia's children were in need. Assured that they were, the children of Calcutta, who themselves lived as beggars, rag-pickers, and laborers, gave Mother Teresa small bits of money to take with her for the children of Ethiopia. Most donations were no more than a few pennies, but they were given at great sacrifice.

One day a small boy came to Mother Teresa nearly crying. He told her that he wanted to help the children of Ethiopia but he had no money at all. He did have a piece of chocolate, however, which he wanted to give and which he hoped would be able to help. He asked Mother Teresa to give his chocolate to the poor children of Ethiopia.

"The little child loved with great love, because … that was the first time that he had ever held a piece of chocolate in his hand," Mother Teresa explained. "And he gave it. He gave it with joy to be able to share; to possibly remove a little of the suffering of someone in far-off Ethiopia. This is the joy of loving: to give until it hurts. It hurts Jesus to love us, for He died on the cross to teach us how to love. And this is the way we too must love: until it hurts."

After that experience, Mother Teresa gave away chocolate as a sign of her love. A priest friend of hers, Father Leo Maasburg, recalled the Easter gift of a slab of chocolate he was given by Mother Teresa in 1989. A helicopter pilot recounted that the only gift he ever received from a passenger was a bar of chocolate and a miraculous medal—from Mother Teresa.

The chocolate became a reminder to Mother Teresa that: "It doesn't matter how much we give. What matters is how much love we put into the giving."

How much love do we put into giving?

In Lent, Christians are invited to be attentive to almsgiving—to giving generously to the poor. We give not only for the immediate benefit of those in need, but in order to begin to see every single person in need as a brother or sister created in the image of God.

The Didache, a late first-century Christian manual of life, put it this way: "Give without hesitating and without grumbling, and you will see Whose generosity will reward you. Never turn away … your brother. If you and he are joint participants in things immortal, how much more so in things that are mortal?"

We are united, each of us, in the love of God. We are united as brothers and sisters with those created in God's image. Almsgiving teaches us to see that. Almsgiving—generous giving to our brothers and sisters—helps us to know what it is to love selflessly. To love as Jesus Christ loves on the cross.

During Lent, we frequently commit to fasts and to increased discipline in prayer. Few of us commit to increases in selfless, live-giving charity. Reflect with me this Lent on the gifts you give—on whether your giving mirrors Jesus Christ. Ask for the gift to give more generously. Some will give vast estates. Others will give pieces of chocolate. What matters is not the size of our gift—what matters is the selfless love with which we give.

May the Lord bless your Lenten almsgiving!

Most Rev. James D. Conley, S.T.L., is Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Denver.

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