ROME — Parishes are turning fasting into almsgiving — just like the Pope asked.

In his Lenten Message, Pope Benedict XVI urges the faithful to find creative ways to blend prayer, almsgiving and fasting to create a more meaningful Lenten journey.

“By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another,” he explains, “we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger.” He urges the faithful to “give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast.”

Parishes across the country help children to understand this connection at an early age. Just before Ash Wednesday, “Self-Denial Folders” and folding cardboard banks appear at church doors and are handed out at religious instruction classes.

The classic folding coin boxes have been a staple of religious education for years. The two most visible programs are from Catholic Relief Service’s Operation Rice Bowl and the Holy Childhood Association, one of the Pontifical Mission Societies.

In its 34 years, Operation Rice Bowl has raised $167 million by encouraging children to offer sacrificial contributions for those in need. Seventy-five percent of that money is used to help provide food in 40 countries, while 25% is left as aid to the local diocese.

“Pope Benedict XVI’s Lenten Message calling on Christians to fast and ‘give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast’ deeply reflects the core principles of Operation Rice Bowl,” says CRS President Ken Hackett. ”Every Lent, millions of Catholics use symbolic rice bowls as the focal point for their communal prayer, fasting and almsgiving — and to adopt the attitude of the Good Samaritan by helping people who have been affected exponentially by skyrocketing food prices and hunger.”

Participants in the program are encouraged to fast and make a small sacrifice: prepare a simple meal each week and donate the money they are saving to Catholic Relief Services’ development programs that help to alleviate hunger.

“Operation Rice Bowl gives people in developing countries hope and an opportunity to break free from the cycle of poverty and hunger by earning a steady income, increasing their farming production, and connecting to markets where they receive a fair price for their crops,” Hackett said. ”And it gives people here in the United States an opportunity to show support for those less fortunate.”

Helping a Sister Diocese

The Holy Childhood Association, founded in France in 1843 by Bishop Charles de Forbin-Janson, encourages children in 110 countries to pray and gather funds for children in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. Their website at helps children make connections to the needy and even offers them an opportunity to “follow their dollar” through the system.

“Self-Denial Folders” are another familiar way to help turn abstention into aid. These coin-collection folders help raise funds for parish-based programs such as the local St. Vincent de Paul Society.

These simple practices are more than just a quaint way to get children into the spirit of Lent. They actually lay a firm foundation for a life of almsgiving and fasting. When money is channeled from buying treats toward the good work, children make a fundamental connection between their plenty and the want of others.

Diocese of Trenton, N.J., Bishop John Smith is making this need clear to parishioners with a program to deliver a tangible good to the Bishop Asili Health Center. Located in Trenton’s sister Diocese of Kasana-Luweero, Uganda, this medical clinic is run by the indefatigable Sister Ernestine Akulu and treats hundreds of patients per day.

Inadequate supplies and poor facilities bedevil the operation, but the biggest problem is power supply, which is needed to refrigerate medicine and keep equipment functioning. Babies are often delivered by candlelight and C-sections performed by the dim glow of a kerosene lantern.

Bishop Smith is trying to raise enough money to install solar electricity at the clinic and is making a sweeping Lenten outreach to get people to turn the money they’ve saved by fasting into something tangible.

As Mary Goss, the diocesan director of the Global Solidarity Program, observes in her open letter to pastors, “The simple sacrifices your parishioners make for Lent, such as fasting from candy, fast food or dessert can be transformed into ‘the power’ to save lives.”

Fasting for Conversion

The Lenten season in America coincides with four special national collections set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Three of these are well-known: Black and Indian Missions, which continues the work of St. Katherine Drexel; Catholic Relief Services, which relies on Lenten giving to continue its work; and the collection for the Holy Land Churches.

The collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe is less well-known but still vital to repair the spiritual life of this region, devastated first by Communism, and then by creeping secularism.

As the collection’s director, Jesuit Father James McCann, points out, “In spite of the history of devastation and oppression in this region, God’s perfect love has sustained and strengthened the people and the Church, creating a new generation of believers, while energizing those who clung to their faith through the darkest times.”

The money raised in this Lenten collection is used to build churches, maintain orphanages, educate pastors and laypeople, and provide scholarships, all to ensure that the seedbed of the faith in Central and Eastern Europe remains tended.

Not all Lenten fasting needs to be turned toward material need. Prayer and fasting are powerful tools in and of themselves, and when the spiritual merits of fasting are combined with prayer and turned to a specific intention, it has a power all its own.

That’s the hope of Brenda Becker, who launched “to move the heart of the president.”

“I’m using fasting,” she explains, “not to directly ‘accomplish the goal’ of changing Obama’s heart on life issues, but to focus and deepen my prayer experience directed toward that intention. It is also an exercise in trust. The apparent absurdity of fasting for Obama to change his mind about abortion ‘rights’ builds trust in my own littleness and God’s infinite and mysterious providence. I can give this small gift, and the rest is entirely up to him.”

It is that humility that should remain with us this season. As Pope Benedict makes clear in his Lenten Message, “Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother.”

Thomas L. McDonald writes

from Medford, New Jersey.

Excerpts From

Pope Benedict XVI’s Lenten Message 2009:

In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly brings benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God. In the apostolic constitution Paenitemini of 1966, the Servant of God Paul VI saw the need to present fasting within the call of every Christian to “no longer live for himself, but for Him who loves him and gave himself for him … he will also have to live for his brethren” (cf. Ch. I). Lent could be a propitious time to present again the norms contained in the apostolic constitution, so that the authentic and perennial significance of this long-held practice may be rediscovered and thus assist us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor, the first and greatest commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel (cf. Matthew 22: 34-40). […]

Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother (cf. Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, God Is Love, 15). By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. It is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters that I encourage the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the word of God, prayer and almsgiving. From the beginning, this has been the hallmark of the Christian community, in which special collections were taken up (cf. 2 Corinthians 8-9; Romans 15: 25-27), the faithful being invited to give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast (Didascalia Ap., V, 20, 18). This practice needs to be rediscovered and encouraged again in our day, especially during the liturgical season of Lent. […]

Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, as the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote, to make the complete gift of self to God (cf. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth, 21). May every family and Christian community use well this time of Lent, therefore, in order to cast aside all that distracts the spirit and grow in whatever nourishes the soul, moving it to love of God and neighbor. I am thinking especially of a greater commitment to prayer, lectio divina, recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation, and active participation in the Eucharist, especially the holy Sunday Mass. With this interior disposition, let us enter the penitential spirit of Lent. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Causa nostrae laetitiae, accompany and support us in the effort to free our heart from slavery to sin, making it evermore a “living tabernacle of God.” With these wishes, while assuring every believer and ecclesial community of my prayer for a fruitful Lenten journey, I cordially impart to all of you my apostolic blessing.

Lenten Giving:
Operation Rice Bowl:
Holy Childhood Association: