By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Christ comes to visit me in the Eucharist, and I return the favor by visiting Him in the poor.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati had a difficult family situation. His parents, a wealthy couple estranged from the Catholic faith, neither understood nor supported his devotion. But he did not allow that to keep him from visiting the Lord, especially in the Eucharist and in the poor. He did so quietly and discreetly, so as not to upset them unnecessarily. At times he would have the gardener wake him early, before anyone else was up. Climbing out the window, he would sneak off to Mass and make it back before anyone knew he was gone. Likewise in his service of the poor. He often gave away his bus money to the poor in Milan. He would then walk home, inevitably arriving late and angering his father. Not until his funeral, to which the poor turned out in great numbers, did his family learn of his little apostolate.
“Christ comes to visit me in the Eucharist,” he said. “And I return the favor by visiting Him in the poor.” Christ in the Eucharist and Christ in the poor. Pier Giorgio would not allow family difficulties to keep him from these two presences of Christ. His words express the mind of the Church and the instinct of the saints. Blessed Mother Teresa’s sisters spend at least one hour every day in prayer before the Eucharist. For them, devotion to our Lord in the Eucharist and devotion to Him in the poorest of the poor are intrinsically united. “Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar,” we say in the Divine Praises. And the Missionaries of Charity add, “Blessed be Jesus in the poorest of the poor.”
There is another connection between feeding the poor and the Eucharist, between the bread necessary for life, and the “supersubstantial” Bread of Life. It is an association we encounter in the Gospels themselves. Our Lord feeds the hungry crowds. His multiplication of the loaves and fish displays the divine concern for those who go without. “His heart was moved with pity for them” (Mk 6:34). And yet that miracle points beyond the temporal satisfying of a physical hunger to the eternal feeding of a spiritual hunger. It speaks of our soul’s hunger and the nourishment it draws from the Eucharist. So after the miraculous feeding, when the crowd follows Him across the sea, He exhorts them, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:27).
Thus the world’s physical hunger points us to the Eucharist. It is a sign of our spiritual hunger, as His miracle is sign of the Eucharist. Indeed, it is a “sacrament” — that is, an outward sign of this interior reality, of our hunger for spiritual nourishment, for more than the world can give, for God Himself. The hunger of the poor alerts us to our own. Taking the hungry seriously is not merely a nice thing to do. It puts us in touch with a profound truth of our own humanity and directs us to its ultimate fulfillment.
But the dynamic works in the other direction as well. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The Eucharist commits us to the poor” (1397). At least it should. Giving thanks that we have been fed superabundantly, we desire to extend a similarly nourishing mercy to others. Awareness of our own hunger and the nourishment we have received should permeate our feeding of the poor. Realizing our need to be fed brings us into solidarity with all who hunger. Thus united, we cannot leave them without food.
We should help the hungry fully conscious of ourselves being hungry, being beggars for our daily bread. This is the lesson behind our Lord’s question to the Apostles: “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” (Jn 6:5) The Apostles — and we — are to minister to the hungry not out of an abundance but out of a poverty, from their own dependence on the Lord. It is not a condescending noblese oblige that commits us to the poor, not a detached approach to the hungry. It is rather as beggars ourselves, as those who know what it means to be hungry and to receive mercy, that we feed others. To feed the hungry we must first feed ourselves on an awareness of our poverty.
And then back in the other direction again. Because feeding the poor is evangelical, another “sacrament” — another outward sign that points those we feed to the greater Bread available to them. Those who feed the hungry become a sign of Him Who alone provides true nourishment for the deepest hunger.