Deacon Walter Ayres
Deacon Walter Ayres

Every year, Lent coincides with the legislative advocacy that precedes the adoption of the New York state budget. At the same time, many Americans are lobbying their congressional representatives and the executive branch regarding various laws and regulations. That makes this a good occasion to reflect on how our Lenten practices might affect our political involvement. 

During Lent we focus on the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Of these, prayer takes precedence. 

It has been said that fasting without prayer is just dieting and almsgiving with­out prayer is only philanthropy. Similarly, social advocacy without prayer is merely politics. Without prayer, we are likely to focus more on how our activism impacts us rather than how it might benefit our sisters and brothers. 

So let us begin by praying for insight, that the things we seek are the things God wants, and not just the things we desire. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” 

As we pray for guidance, we should ask ourselves if we are working to protect the dignity of others when it is being threatened, or just looking out for those who are like us. Do we respect the economic, social and political rights of others? Do we give special attention to the needs of the poor and vulnerable? Do we pray for vulnerable people around the world, or do we pray only for our personal concerns? 

Let us turn to fasting, for there is much we can leave behind as we advocate. To begin, let us fast from attacking those who disagree with us and, instead, recognize them as people who might be right. No side has all the answers, so it is in the sometimes bruising give-and-take of political discourse that we reach agreement on how to work together. Even if our opponents are wrong, they are deserving of respect. 

As St. Augustine observed in another context, “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.” 

Almsgiving is another Lenten practice that can be adapted to social advocacy. While I am not suggesting that we give less money to the poor, perhaps we can increase our donations to those involved in social justice. This can include political parties, organizations and individual candidates. Our donations can involve money, but also be of time. Volunteers are needed in the struggle for a just and peaceful world. 

Both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the New York State Catholic Conference are looking for people to contact their legislators. For more information, go to www.usccb.org and click on the “Issues and Action” button on the top of the page. Similarly, type www.nyscatholic.org to reach the state Catholic Conference. There is a logo on the top right corner of the page to join the Catholic Action Network. 

Many other Catholic social advocacy organizations are involved in a wide range of issues. Some examples include the Franciscan Action Network (franciscanaction.org), Justice for Immigrants (justiceforimmigrants.org), and the Catholic Climate Covenant (catholicclimatecovenant.org). 
Whatever you choose to do, together we can help millions of people through advocacy that changes unjust policies or systems.  

Deacon Walter Ayres is Director of Catholic Charities Commission on Peace and Justice.