Ash Wednesday is an important day in the Christian calendar. It is the beginning of Lent, the preparation period leading to the celebration of Easter. Lent is marked by three very ancient practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the three religions that claim Abraham as their “father in faith”, all command the practice of almsgiving during their periods of fasting leading to their major feasts. These practices are often thought to be for private use and not for public consumption. While important to the individual’s spiritual development and relationship to their God they are intended to be a sign to the world for its transformation. They are not the domain of a privatised religion.
Rather, these ancient practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are about showing religious faith and a demonstration with the broader Australian community of compassion in action.
The moment of prayer and quiet contemplation is not consistent with our societal need for constant gratification and distraction. The practice of fasting is a direct challenge to Australian society where obesity among our children is an increasing phenomenon.
Caritas Australia launches its annual Project Compassion appeal today and aims to raise over $8.5 million nationally. The appeal has its roots within the Catholic community and runs for the 40 days of Lent. Project Compassion is Australia’s largest annual humanitarian fundraising campaign. It is a real and creative expression of almsgiving and a challenge to the model of how Australia engages with the world.
The programs that Caritas supports throughout the world are highly discriminatory. Our programs and partners discriminate in favour of the poor whether they are Indigenous communities in Western Australia preventing diabetes, or child-headed households in South Africa who are building a future after the deaths of their parents from HIV-AIDS.
Such programs are counter to a public policy framework that sees international affairs only premised on self or national interest.
The practice of almsgiving has never been about sating the consciences of religious devotees. It is the regular call of re-orientation of faith communities to what is core in the human search for meaning and faithful relationship with God.
In the case of the Islamic, Jewish and Christian faiths it is clear that the measure of what constitutes a just and well society is found in the care that is given to the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
This year, Project Compassion funds will be used by Caritas Australia to respond to the thousands of women in the Asia and Pacific region who are the victims of domestic and sexual violence and live in appalling poverty, leaving them not only abused but isolated from their communities as widows were in the past when denied all property rights.
The funds will also support activities for the young men of our neighbouring countries of Timor Leste, Tonga and the Solomons who have few meaningful opportunities for employment and income to feed their families and create a future and who have descended into the despairing behaviour of violence and destruction, as we saw on our television screens last year.
Project Compassion will also allow Caritas to respond to those refugees currently displaced and struggling to access food, safe water supplies and essential health and education services in Darfur region of Sudan and in conflict-ridden Sri Lanka.
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