Our Five Loaves and Two Fish, Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), July 31, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 31, 2005
Is 55:1-3; Rom 8:35, 37-39; Mt 14:13-21

1) In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches very clearly about what he expects from us and how God generally works. We begin with his expectations of his followers. When the disciples saw the huge multitude, they wanted to send them away to fend for themselves. Jesus, on the other hand, wanted them to feel a deep personal responsibility for their welfare. “They need not go away,” the Lord said: “YOU give them something to eat.” Very often, we try to pass the buck on others’ difficulties, saying “that’s their problem,” not mine. But such a response is not worthy of a disciple. St. Paul said in today’s second reading that nothing — not hunger or nakedness, distress or hardship, peril or persecution or the sword — can separate us from God’s love. Therefore, if we are to love others as Christ has loved us, whenever others are experiencing hunger or homeless, struggles and difficulties, loneliness or persecution, we cannot be separated from them, but must work with Jesus for them. One concrete way to examine whether we are being good disciples is with respect to our parish food pantry. There are hundreds of families in this area who do not have sufficient food. The question for us is whether we take their needs personally and do something about it, by volunteering to work at the food pantry or in the acquisition of food, or — if your work schedule makes that impossible — by contributing generously by using the Food Pantry envelopes found at the entrances of the Church, or, if God has made you even poorer than they, even by praying for their families that they may find work and their kids may not go malnourished. Jesus tells us, as much as he told his disciples two thousand years ago, “You give them something to eat!” We might be tempted like the first disciples to respond, “What can we do in response to such a crowd?” All the disciples had was five loaves and two fish — not enough even to feed a large family, not to mention 5000 families — and they likewise felt the disproportion between their resources and the need. But that leads us to the second point, how God works his miracles.

2) When Jesus saw the infamished crowds, he could have easily worked a miracle from scatch. He who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing, who fed the Israelites in the desert with miraculous manna and quails from heaven (Ex 16:13,31), could easily have satiated the hungry multitude all by himself. He didn’t need human assistance. But that isn’t the way he wanted to act. He wanted to start with his disciples’ generosity. He wanted to involve them in his miracle. He wanted to start with the best and the most that people had, and bring their generosity to completion.

3) This is the way God generally operates with us. He could do it everything by himself, but he knows that wouldn’t be ultimately good for us. Just like a parent recognizes that it’s not good to do everything for a child, but often gives a child a project and helps the child complete it, so God out of love wants to give us the joy and dignity of being cooperators with him in what he’s doing for us and for others. Look at the wonderful story of the apostles. Jesus wanted to involve these simple men in the most important mission ever, the proclamation of the kingdom of God and the salvation of the human race. He could have done it all himself. He could have stayed here on earth until the end of time, traversed every land, preached and cured by himself, but he wanted them to share in this mission. He gave them his message and his authority. They weren’t necessarily talented men, they were, for the most part, blue-collar folks, sinners just like us, but they were capable of saying yes to God, to offering to him their good will, and all the talents he gave them — whether they were a meager one loaf and one fish, or many more — and allowing the Lord to multiply their offerings by his divine power.

4) God wants to the same from us. Regardless of how many gifts and blessings the Lord has given us, he wants us to give them back to him so that he can do far greater things with them. We might have received only a minimal education in the faith through CCD. Without God, this wouldn’t be much to help our friends come to the Lord. But together with the Lord, the Lord can use this to make us a great apostle, like he did with St. Peter. We might not be very gifted as a teacher, but with the Lord, we might be the best of teachers to our children if only we strive to do the best we really can do, by studying our faith in order better to pass on this treasure to our children. We might not be have much in the way of material possessions, but when we offer them to the Lord, he might use them to help save others’ lives in this world or in the next. We might be advanced in years or very ill and think that we don’t have much still to give, but offered to the Lord, even our sufferings can be incredibly fruitful.

5) One very clear and unforgettable example of this I learned from Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, a Vietnamese prelate who died in 2002, whom I had the privilege to get to know when he was the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome. Prior to that, he was the Archbishop of Saigon. As soon as the Communists took over South Vietnam in 1975, they arrested him and threw him into prison. For 13 years he was incarcerated, nine of them in solitary confinement. The day after he was arrested, the Communists allowed him to write his family for what he needed. He asked them to send some clothes, toothpaste, a torch and his “stomach medicine.” He had no stomach ailment at the time, but his family knew that this must be a code word for them to put wine in a medicine bottle, so that he would be able to celebrate Mass and satisfy his greatest hunger. Every night, in darkness, he would put a few crumbs of bread and three drops of wine from his “stomach medicine” bottle on the altar of his hand and celebrate the Mass from memory. He made a small tabernacle out of an old cigarette case to keep with him to adore or, when he could, to smuggle Jesus to give Communion to other Catholics under arrest in the camp. His guards maltreated him. He was often starved for days and taunted. Like anyone in such a situation, he was led almost to the point of despair. He cried out to the Lord in prayer, asking him what sense it made for him to spend so much time in prison. He wanted to be out, preaching, teaching, sanctifying and encouraging the Lord’s flock, helping them to keep the faith. He desperately wanted to be doing something, rather than remain in a filthy, damp prison cell apparently doing nothing.

6) In prayer, however, the Lord led him to meditate on the passage from today’s Gospel of the five loaves and two fish. He preached about these experiences to young people at World Youth Day in Parish in 1997 and put those eventually put those talks into a book called, “Five Loaves and Two Fish.” Cardinal Thuan recounted his prayerful realization that he might not be able to give the Lord very much, but he could start by giving him all that he had left — the little attention he was able to muster, his daily Mass, his sufferings and sacrifices — knowing that when they were offered to the Lord in the same spirit as those disciples on the hillside, there was no telling what the Lord would be able to do with them. He began to make use of little scraps of paper from old calendars to write jot down whatever spiritual insights the Lord gave him. He started to hand them to a young Catholic boy who would pass by his cell, and the young boy would secretly smuggle them to his parents, who copied them, compiled them and eventually published them as a book called “The Road to Hope,” which had a huge influence in strengthening the faith of the Vietnamese throughout the country. He started to see that he could offer up even the taunts and humiliations of the guards to the Lord each day, by trying to respond to them with kindness and love. In response to their contempt, he offered to try to help them, by teaching them foreign languages, Latin, French and English. These small deeds of love eventually led, like drips of water on a rock, to some in-roads and much later Thuan had the joy of welcoming some of those guards into the Church. While what he was doing — hidden away in a secretive solitary confinement — seemed so little in the face of the great issues confronting his country and his Church, he knew he wasn’t helpless, because with the Lord, such little gifts could bring about great miracles. His faithful witness to Christ in prison, in the face of all types of hardships, was what the Lord used perhaps more than any other means to feed the Vietnamese faithful in the face of a brutal Communist regime (which continues).

7) We’re called to follow Cardinal Van Thuan in this daily offering of whatever we have to the Lord, in giving him whatever we have so that the Lord can use it to feed others. Whether it’s a lot or a little, if we give it all to the Lord, the Lord will multiply its effects. And the most fitting place to offer this gift is in union with Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass. This is where the Lord wants us to unite all our gifts, our hopes, our sufferings, our desires, our blood, sweat, tears to his saving work. That’s why we have the offertory right before the Liturgy of the Eucharist, so that each of us has the opportunity — the privilege — to make a sacrifice and to unite all of what we’ve been doing to what the Lord wants to do with all of those efforts. That’s what the beautiful dialogue prayer at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist means: “Pray, brothers and sisters, that this SACRIFICE, yours and mine, may be made acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.” We’re each and all called to unite our sacrifices of love to Christ’s supreme sacrifice and offer them together to God the Father. Sometimes people complain, “I don’t get anything out of the Mass.” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in response used to cry aloud, “Well, that’s because you’re not putting anything into it!” The more we put into the Mass, the more we will receive, because it’s only when we’re empty of ourselves that the Lord can fill us. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “It is only in giving that we receive.” The reason why we take the collection right before the liturgy of the Eucharist begins is because that is the time in the Mass when explicitly are called to put trustingly our own five loaves and two fish — whatever we have — in the hands of the Lord. The Lord calls us to be generous here, just like the disciples who didn’t give Jesus just one loaf and kept the rest for themselves, but gave him everything. We’re called not just to put a few coins or dollar bills from our surplus into the basket, but to put our whole SELVES in the basket, to throw ourselves spiritually on the paten with the bread and wine, as it is brought forward to be offered to God on the altar.

8 ) The Eucharist is the reality to which the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish points. In the Eucharist, Jesus again takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it once more in a multiplication that is even more miraculous, stretching across the centuries, in every land, from the Upper Room to here at St. Anthony of Padua. This is a sacrifice that has fed billions of God’s children and prepared them for the heavenly banquet. And in the very way Christ established it, he shows how he wanted our intimate involvement. We use not grain and grapes, but bread and wine, the “work of human hands,” because God intended from the beginning our own contribution in this one great sacrifice to the Father, this sacrifice of Christ together with His Mystical Body, the Church. This is the sacrifice of our salvation. As we prepare to share in this great and on-going miracle, let us ask the Lord to give us the courage and the generosity to offer our whole lives to him and his service, so that the Lord, in feeding us now, may use us and all we have to feed others. Praised be Jesus Christ!