People Are Hungry, and the Church Responds

He looked familiar.

I saw him four or five back in the long line of hundreds waiting for their full bag of food at the annual Thanksgiving distribution sponsored by Catholic Charities at the Kennedy Center in Harlem

Unlike most of the crowd, he was not recognizable as a “street person,” or one in desperation. Still, there he stood, obviously in need of a turkey, vegetables, bread, potatoes, and fixings for the holiday meal.

He must have detected that I was glancing at him, because when he got to me, he smiled and introduced himself.

“Do you recognize me?” he asked.

“You sure do look familiar,” I confessed.

“That’s because, last year, I was here helping you. I was giving out the food. This year, I need it. I’ve been out of work for 10 months. Now, I’m on the receiving end.”

People are hungry in our community. One of the first places they come for help, naturally, is the Church.

We cannot let them down.

I not only recognized that man as a former colleague helping us feed the hungry. I saw in him the very face of Jesus, who told us, “When you do it to one of these, you do it to me!”

This great community of New York that we cherish as our earthly home does a rather good job of feeding the hungry. Our municipal, county, state and federal agencies; our volunteer programs; and our neighbors of all faiths, daily provide meals in a generously effective way. Alleluia!

The Church must be on the front lines. And, thanks to the inspiration of Jesus and the care of our great people, we are.

Now, though, more than ever! The sluggish economy, the high number of unemployed, the winter freeze, the depletion of stocks of food gathered wonderfully during the recent holidays, and government budget cutbacks are straining our cupboards.

As usual, Catholic Charities is prophetically prodding us about our hungry neighbors. They have invited us all to participate in a massive food drive, to begin the weekend of January 21-22, and end the next Saturday and Sunday, January 28-29.

So, raid the cabinets; go to the store; help organize. In every parish, on those two weekends, please bring food, or money to purchase some.

So many of our parishes, schools, programs, and organizations do this splendidly already. Those that are doing it are asked to do more; those that are not are asked to start now.

In the early Church, bringing food to every Sunday Mass was an ordinary practice. It would be distributed to those in need.

As a member of our Archdiocesan Pastoral Council observed at our recent meeting, “Let’s do it again!”

Dorothy Day, one of our own here in New York—one day, please God, she’ll be canonized—asked, “How can we dare approach the altar for the ‘Bread of Life’ if we do not share our daily bread with those who are hungry?”

Former President George Bush (the first) tells the story of meeting with Mother Teresa in the Oval Office. He was so moved he asked her a dangerous question:

“Mother, how can I help you?”

As soon as he asked it, President Bush recalls, he regretted it. He remembers fearing she would ask him to do something dramatic, daring, so expensive or bold that he’d have to refuse.

He was relieved when she replied:

“Mr. President, what do you do with the leftovers after a big state dinner here at the White House?”

Confessing that he did not really know, he called the White House kitchen and asked them. The chef reported that it was custom that all leftovers were given immediately to a group called SOME (“So Others Might Eat”) organized by a D.C. priest, Father Howard McKenna, S.J., that picked up unused food, not only from the White House, but from restaurants and stores all over the city, and fed the hungry with it.

Mother Teresa smiled. “That’s all I need to know. Thanks.”

The President then commented to Mother Teresa that he was surprised at the simplicity and “ordinariness”of her request, shocked that she had not asked for more.

“But, Mr. President,” replied Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, “if everyone shared the leftovers of their table, there would be no one hungry in the world.”

Impractical? Simplistic? Silly? I don’t think so.

Let’s give it a shot these last two weekends of this cold month and see.

January 22—the Sunday the drive begins—calls us to reverence life. While we concentrate that somber day on the frail life of the baby in the womb, we also recall that feeding the hungry is indeed very pro-life.

Last Holy Thursday I served lunch to the hungry in the food line at St. Paul the Apostle parish near Lincoln Center. One of the homeless men commented, “Upstairs, in Church, my soul gets fed. Down here, my tummy gets fed. I need both.”

We’re hypocrites if we distribute, and receive, the “Food of Heaven” but do not share the food of earth with our hungry neighbors.

Fill those boxes provided by Catholic Charities! Replenish our food pantries!

“For I was hungry and you gave me to eat . . .”

P.S. Thanks for all your thoughtful good wishes on my nomination by the Holy Father as a cardinal!