Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Envelopes for Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl program are displayed in this illustration photo. CRS is the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. bishops. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

This Lent, consider sharing your bounty with our neighbors around the world

My Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Lent comes early this year. It is February 14 – Valentines Day – so if that is an important day for you to celebrate with a loved one or open a heart-shaped box of chocolates maybe you should find an alternative date now! Ash Wednesday, marking the first of forty days of Lent, does not lend itself to transfer.

This month I want to promote an old Lenten custom for American Catholics. At your parish you will be able to pick up a little square cardboard box that you will recognize as a Rice Bowl distributed by Catholic Relief Services. I remember the Rice Bowl as a child and at the end of Lent proudly turning in my meager contribution with the understanding that I was assisting with providing a bowl of real rice to an impoverished child somewhere in the world.

There are many special collections that we promote in our Catholic parishes throughout the year and every one of them represents a worthy venture and opportunity for American Catholics to share of our bounty with others. For many years I have been very partial in my own charity to this Lenten Rice Bowl initiative that serves to fund Catholic Relief Services.

Catholic Relief Services was founded in 1943 by the Catholic Bishops of the United States to serve World War II survivors in Europe. It provided a way for American Catholics to serve those devastated by the war. Since then, CRS has expanded in size to reach more than 130 million people in more than 100 countries on five continents.

When we learn of natural or human-created disasters in the world, we often learn that among the first on the scene to offer assistance is Catholic Relief Services – because chances are they are already there offering programs of aid to the poorest of the poor. When the Israeli-Hamas war started, CRS was already in the very poor region of Gaza. CRS has been active in Ukraine since the days immediately after the Russian invasion to assist the hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by the violence.

Last October when I visited Nigeria, I made arrangements to visit the CRS headquarters in the capitol city of Abuja. CRS has more than 400 workers in Nigeria. In their offices we met the directors of many of their programs. Some of these programs address food insecurity, malaria prevention, AIDS prevention, housing and vocational training. Nigeria’s population is about evenly split between Christians and Muslims, the Christians dominating in the south and the Muslims in the north. Of the 400 CRS employees in the nation, about half are Muslims. Although the CRS mission is rooted in the Catholic faith, their operations serve people based solely on need, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.

After visiting the CRS offices we accompanied the executive director, Akim Kikonda, to visit the site of a vocational training program for young adults cosponsored by CRS and the Archdiocese of Abuja. This was graduation day for 60 young adults who had completed a several month program. Among the program offerings were training in poultry and fish production, food service, computer training, and sewing.  These graduates were the fifth cohort to complete the training in the last couple of years, so nearly 300 have benefited.

The graduates were not just given a certificate and sent out the door. For those trained in poultry production each was given a case of 48 chicks and a 50-pound bag of feed as a starter. Each who completed the sewing program received a sewing machine. The sewing machines were electric but lacked the bells and whistles we might see in stores in our country; just the basics. Mr. Kikonda spoke proudly on this program as just one of scores of CRS programs throughout the country.

Catholic Relief Services is said to be one of the best kept secrets of the American Catholic Church, quietly and humbly going about their mission year in and year out around the world, always positioned and ready to be among the first organizers after any catastrophe.

Almsgiving is one of the three-fold Lenten challenges along with prayer and fasting. This year I will be more conscious of my Rice Bowl and how my offering is changing the lives of people. Perhaps we can more consciously connect our fasting to our almsgiving by forgoing some fast food or even that heart-shaped box of candy. Whether the gift is the meager pennies and nickels of a child or a more substantial offering, I have seen firsthand that our sacrifices make a difference.

Sincerely Yours in Christ,

Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro

To learn more, including how you can contribute to Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowl, visit

Originally printed in the February 2024 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
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