By Lydia O’Kane
How many times in our lives have we heard a story about a random act of kindness that has impacted someone’s life for the better, or been the recipient of the generosity of others ourselves?
Down through the centuries Saints, writers and Popes have extolled the power of charity and generosity to change and enhance lives.
It was St Francis of Assisi who said, “For it is in giving that we receive,” while the 19th-century writer Charles Dickens wrote, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
During Holy Mass for new Cardinals in February 2015, Pope Francis said, “Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages. For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.”
Giving and receiving
For over thirty years, the CEO and Founder of Mary’s Meals, Scotsman Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow has dedicated his life to making sure children have at least one meal every school day.
Mary's Meals now works with communities in 19 different countries around the world, providing a meal in a place of education for more than a million children.
In a new book entitled “Give: Charity and the Art of Giving Generously,” the Mary’s Meals founder looks at the role of philanthropy and generosity in our lives.
Speaking to Vatican Radio, he said one of the reasons he wrote the book was because over and over again he was seeing that the people who had really learned to give also tended “to be the people who are most happy in life, who are most full of joy, full of peace.”
Mr. MacFarlane-Barrow noted that one of the risks in charity work is that “you start to identify only as the giver and people out there as passive receivers, but really authentic charity is not like that. We’re all givers and receivers… and we need to learn how to give and how to receive.”
Responsibility and giving
Over the past few months, millions of lives have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Many people have become ill with the disease, while others have lost their jobs.
Recently, because of scandals, a number of charities have also made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Asked whether people are becoming more reluctant to give, the Mary’s Meals CEO said while the consequences of the pandemic have been devastating for many, “in times of crisis and human suffering we see the goodness of people and that charity that seems to reside in the human heart.”
He also acknowledged “the persistent questions around charity, relating to some scandals or just questions that never seem to go away around charity [such as] overheads or CEO salaries.”
Mr. MacFarlane-Barrow emphasized that people should ask questions and expect charitable organizations to be transparent “when they’re thinking of giving”.
Now more than ever, he added, those who are in positions of authority within charities have a responsibility to be stewards that elevate the place of charity, “that encourages people to give rather than doing things in a way that leads people to become disillusioned or sceptical or even cynical.”
Generosity of heart
Many passages in the Bible have recounted stories of people who have been generous givers. One, in particular, is the story of the widow who gave away all she had to live on and was commended by Jesus for doing so. Asked if, in his experience, people who have less give more, the CEO said it would be an over simplification to say they do. However, he said in all his years doing charitable work, he has been repeatedly “astounded by acts of generosity performed by people who have almost nothing materially.”
It is also the case, he pointed out, that while there are those who are wealthy, who often might find it harder to give freely, “there are many examples of people of great wealth who do give in extraordinary ways.” “It’s probably not so much about what we’ve got, it’s probably more about our attitude to what we’ve been given.”
Despite founding and building a charity over the last thirty years, MacFarlane-Barrow admitted that he is still learning every day. “It was not a work I planned; I never set out to found a new organization, I never expected to get involved in this kind of work on a full-time basis,” he said. “I still can’t quite figure out why God asked me to do this… And so, from the very beginning, its felt like a very steep learning curve indeed, and still does.”
He went on to say that he never fails to be surprised by things, especially during this time of pandemic and seeing the resilience of people in the communities in which Mary’s Meals works.
Looking back on his life, the Mary’s Meals founder said it's now easier to see that God did indeed have a plan for him and showed him his path one step at a time. “I do feel very much that God has a plan for every single one of us, a really important plan. We’re all called to respond to that plan; to play our part in making our world better somehow.”
Pope Francis and charity
During his General Audience on 11 May 2016, Mr. MacFarlane- Barrow met with Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square.
After hearing about Mary’s Meals work, Pope Francis offered his encouragement, saying, “Onwards! Onwards! Onwards! May God bless your work.”
Four years on from that meeting, the CEO commented that Pope Francis is constantly reminding people about the core of the Gospel message, which is the Christian charity that we are called to do.
Looking ahead to the future, Mr. MacFarlane-Barrow said Mary’s Meals still has this dream “that every child in this world should at least be able to get one good meal every day in their place of education; we believe that’s possible, in this world of plenty, in this world where we produce more than enough food for all of us to eat well. And yet today, children are starving, millions of children are missing school because of hunger, because of poverty. So, that dream, that vision burns more brightly than ever.”