The Heart of the Gospel
Feed the Hungry
Share your bread with the hungry.
(Is. 58:7) The prophet's
admonition was a standard of charity for the Jews of Jesus' time.
Perhaps the little boy with the five loaves and tvvo fish had heard his
mother tell him this. In any case, the Gospel accounts of the miraculous
multiplication do not indicate any hesitation on the part of that
youngster to share what he had with the Teacher whose concern for the
needs of the multitude was so evident.
Feeding the hungry has been a work of Christ's followers from the beginning of the Church. In feeding the hungry poor, the early Christians were not only doing something like Christ, they were doing something for Christ. They did it to Him. They had His word on it. (cf. Matt. 25:35; 40) Thus an ordinary action, so simple that even a child can do it, took on, with faith and love, the depths of sacramental meaning and became a work of mercy.
Lady Ortolana, the mother of St. Clare of Assisi, understood this. In her time, the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, the devastation wrought by invading armies often brought the regions around Assisi to near starvation. Ortolana could not sit idly by as the poor of her city suffered. Devotion had urged this pious woman to go on pilgrimage to far away places as an expression of her love for God. That same devotion now urged her to honor the Lord by setting out on a different kind of pilgrimage — to the homes of the hungry — feeding them from the storerooms of her own household. Often she was accompanied on these rounds of mercy by her golden-haired daughter, the future St. Clare.
Young Clare was an excellent pupil in the school of mercy. Soon she was feeding the hungry not only from her family's bounty, but even from the food she received at the family's table. We do not know if Ortolana had told her little girl that Jesus in the Gospel had advised His disciples to keep their deeds of mercy secret (cf. Matt. 6:3-4), but Clare enlisted a friend to take her portions to the poor so they would not know the identity of the donor.
Clare's deeds of mercy continued as she grew into young womanhood. When Francis and his first followers (among them, her cousin Rufino) were working to repair the rundown chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, the teenage Clare sent money for them to purchase food. With a practicality like her mother's, she specified that the donation should be used to buy meat to keep up the strength of the friars-turned-stone masons.
Even after she espoused a life of total evangelical poverty, St. Clare still engaged in the first corporal work of mercy. When there was only one loaf of bread to feed her community of fifty sisters, the Seraphic Mother first broke it and sent half to the nearbyfriary. Then she prayed, and God miraculously multiplied the remaining half loaf, providing a tangible proof that in the work of feeding the hungry there is present the hand of Him who multiplies the bread by breaking it, and increases it by giving it away. (St. Leo the Great)
Much has changed since St. Clare's time. But, unfortunately, too many people today still lack their daily bread. The Gospel work of mercy which is feeding the hungry is more necessary than ever. It is, now as then, a simple work that even a child can do — a work that a child in thirteenth century Assisi did do. By her example, St. Clare invites us to see Christ in the hungry, and feed Him.