The sacrament of charity

by Peggy Ryan


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The food pantry where I serve is a former Catholic church. Some years ago, volunteers came in, removed the pews and replaced them with shelves that hold the groceries we give away. The heavenly food of the Eucharist, once received here, has been exchanged for an earthly fare: rice, beans, fresh veggies and fruit, milk, meat, and other good stuff. Now, many — often broken and desperate — who reflect Christ's body, form community as they wait in the exact place formerly reserved for the blessed sacrament.

I love these former church connections enjoyed by all of us who work here. The office was a sacristy. While grabbing toothpaste and toothbrushes for a family of five, I am reminded that I am standing in a current storage space and a former confessional. A trip to collect diapers brings me to the old choir loft, where I can look down on the food pantry and easily see the nave-shaped first floor. From this vantage point, I can imagine the gathering of the faithful and hear the years of prayers that have echoed off these walls.

Connections are also easily made with the Mass. St. Thomas Aquinas called the Eucharist a sacrament of charity. The self-giving of Christ in the sharing of his body and blood is always an offering deeply rooted in love. This sacrifice is made for the sake of the whole universe, and challenges us to be that kind of giving love for all creation. When we receive the Eucharist, we are called to carry the love of Christ in the accompaniment of our neighbor.

This accompaniment occurs at the food pantry. There are a variety of reasons why the people who are guests at our pantry are caught in a cycle of poverty. Everyone who visits us experiences food insecurity because of high rents, low wages, or unexpected expenses, such as medical bills or utility costs. Some are senior citizens. This supplemental food received twice a month allows them to augment their fixed incomes. Working parents also visit our pantry. Some work full-time, and others have part-time or seasonal work. The unemployed are frequent visitors. We serve the homeless or those in temporary shelters. The newly arrived immigrants visit us.

The love poured out in the body and blood of Jesus at the Eucharist leaves no room for exclusion. We are called to a radical inclusivity at each Mass. I take in Christ's very self and take on Christ's love for all. Despite the struggles of the institutional church, each Mass begs the question, "How can we turn anyone away?"

Inclusivity is carried on at the food pantry. To turn away a request at the pantry, we learn from Matthew's Gospel, is to turn Christ away. "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). Some guests arrive late or on the wrong day. Others have special needs, for both food and other things. Some days it is hard to be the giver, and some days it is the receiver who is full of struggle. The inclusive love of Christ calls us to muster through and practice the "doing" that Matthew's Gospel preaches.

The Eucharist challenges each of us to recognize that we are part of a community and members of the human family. We can see Christ in our neighbor and find ourselves. Until I can get to the point where I see no distinction between a guest at the food pantry and myself, I am still in need of transformation. Pope Francis says this conversion "demands exchange, encounter, and a genuine solidarity capable of entering into the mindset of taking, blessing and giving. It demands the logic of love."

Each time I receive the Eucharist, I am called to authenticity. The Liturgy was initially designed using everyday aspects of life in the time of Jesus, such as simple bread and wine. It is possible to see the Eucharist as revolutionary. What was once common and ordinary is now God's very life. Accompanying those who do not have enough food on the table is another call to authenticity. The food pantry continually asks the question of us, "How do we share?" Is there anything at the food pantry that I am doing that separates me or sets me apart? Do we, as Mahatma Gandhi asked, live simply so others may simply live?

Our food pantry, which inhabits an old church, searches daily for ways to be Eucharist. We gather as the people of God and offer all that we are with each bag of groceries. We struggle to become united as sisters and brothers in one human family. We strive to be inclusive, revolutionary in our sharing and authentic. In the forming of community, where once the Blessed Sacrament was adored, we become Christ's body and blood for all.

[Peggy Ryan is a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa who recently completed her Doctor of Ministry degree from Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. As part of her parish ministry, Peggy and the other Dominican Sisters with whom she lives, offer weekend retreats of service and theological reflection.]