It is a sight which once seen we can never forget: on the streets of the most affluent nation in the world a poor person pawing through the garbage can looking for food. It is unsettling to realize that people go to bed hungry in the United States. The first two corporal works of mercy address our most fundamental human needs: food and drink. One very immediate way to perform this work of mercy is to help organizations in our community that feed the poor. We can support them financially and, if our circumstances allow, volunteer some time.
When we look beyond our borders we see that matters are more drastic in other parts of the world. Pope Benedict XVI has written that feeding the hungry is an ethical imperative for the universal Church, and he observes: “Hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on a shortage of social resources” (Caritas in veritate 27). It is a tragedy that people go hungry in our world, but it is a scandal that they do so because the abundant goods of this world are not shared. Lazarus still longs to eat the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. We need to give food to the hungry in our own communities, but also educate ourselves on the needs felt in other parts of the world and help as our resources allow.
This is an obligation for every human being, but it has a special claim on us as Christians. We worship Christ, the Bread of Life, in the Eucharist; but this worship will be hollow if we do not also reverence and serve him in the poor. In the ancient Epistle of Barnabas we are urged: “Share with your neighbor whatever you have, and do not say of anything, this is mine. If you both share an imperishable treasure, how much more must you share what is perishable” (Barnabas 19).
Recognizing Christ in those who hunger, we will want not simply to meet their needs, but to provide them with more than leftovers. The Order of Malta was founded by members of the nobility nine centuries ago to care for the sick and needy in the Holy Land, and their work continues today throughout the world. It was their custom to speak of “our lords, the sick and the poor” and to serve the poor with the best they had.
This work of mercy can also be carried out in other circumstances. People who are experiencing stress or grief may not have the energy to cook. Bringing meals to a neighbor at a difficult time, such as after a stay in the hospital or at the death of a loved one, is a small but effective act of charity. The elderly shut-in or resident in a home would appreciate an occasional special treat or luncheon out. A good meal – especially when accompanied by a warm heart and a generous ear – nourishes the spirit as well as the body.
In the context of this work we might also re-visit the practices of fasting and abstinence, which seem to have all but disappeared from Catholic life. By foregoing a meal we can curb our own appetite (a healthy thing for us!) and use the resources to help someone who needs a meal.
As we reflect on the works of mercy during this Holy Year, we see that they open our eyes to the needs – great and small – of other people. Our vision should embrace the whole human family, but our response can be made even in little, discrete ways. The Lord promises: “If you pour yourself out for the hungry… then shall your light rise in the darkness” (Is 58:10).