Indeed, rather than being something new it’s a tradition whose roots date back to the first Christian generations. Mons. Maurizio Barba, Professor of Liturgical studies at the Pontifical Liturgy Institute of the Pontifical Saint Anselm Atheneum, thus explained the practice of sharing lunch with the poor in church, revived by Pope Francis during his 17th visit across Italy. “Only a Church of solidarity”, he said, “is a solid Church.”
The lunch with poor people in the Basilica of Saint Petronio will be recorded as one of the memorable images of the Pope’s visit to Bologna. Is it a an unprecedented event?
Opening the doors of churches for a banquet with the poor is not something completely new in the history of the Church; just as the special care for the poor is not unusual in Pope Francis’ pontificate.
The Apostolic Church has given value to Jesus’ example of feeding the hungry and quenching the thirsty , which by tradition is epitomised in the Eucharist: in the Acts of the Apostles we read that the breaking of the bread must be accompanied by the sharing of material goods. Saint Paul established a bond between acts of charity towards the hungry and the Eucharistic celebration. In Corinth it was preceded by fraternal agape. Saint Paul reminds the Corinthians, who would not share their bread with the poor whom they considered unworthy of their dinner, of the infinite love that led Christ to establish the Eucharist, understood as the memory of a life broken for others. For Paul the Eucharist is strictly bound to solidarity. Let it suffice to recall the collection he organized for Christians in Jerusalem. St John Chrysostom narrates that at the end of the sacramental gathering, instead of returning to their homes, the rich invited the poor and they all sat around the same table set inside the church. Saint Gregory the Great opened the doors of the church to share meals with the poor, in a situation of serious difficulties for the city of Rome. Also the ancient Basilica of Saint Peter’s built under Constantine carried out this practice, as we are told by Paulinus of Nola.
The special attention towards the poor is found in Pope Francis’ pontificate: he constantly speaks of the “throwaway culture” and of “the preferential option for the poor”. His words at the beginning of his pontificate: – “how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor” – is the program that Jesus made known in the Synagogue at Nazareth. During the Jubilee, Francis established the First World Day of the Poor, due to be celebrated on November 19.
Is there a relationship between the Eucharistic symbol and the city of men?
There is no doubt that the bread and the wine placed on the altar are a Sacrament, a powerful sign that fulfils the presence of Jesus’ body and blood. In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ become the sacrifice of the Church: the life of the faithful, the prayer, wok, the joys and the sufferings are those of Christ and of his self-offering to the Father, thereby taking on renewed value.
There is a close bond between the Church and the Eucharist: when the Christian believer receives the Eucharistic Bread he is receiving the body of the Lord who thereby incorporates humankind. In a certain way he is also receiving himself and the Church as a whole, all those who share his same faith.
The Eucharist thus becomes the symbol of the unity of the Church: by eating the only bread the faithful are in communion with the Lord and with each other. For John Chrysostom solidarity is a sacrament, it’s the sign of the presence of Christ in the world:
The poor person is “another Christ”, the “sacrament of the altar” must extend into daily life to encompass the “sacrament of our brother”; there is no separation between them.
The Gospel teaches us to serve the poor: for Christians, charity is not practiced in the name of an anonymous form of humanism or solidarity. It is practiced in the name of Jesus and of the Gospel.
Is Eucharistic liturgy also a liturgy of the body?
If we truly wish to encounter Christ, we have to touch his body in the suffering bodies of the poor, the Pope writes in his message for the World Day of the Poor. The Eucharist is the manifestation of an ethics of donation, of sharing and of solidarity. Paul defines the collection for the poor with the term koinonìa, that comes from the Greek verb koinoō, which also means to “contaminate”, to “desecrate”: hence charity means to be contaminated by the other person’s condition, as we are deeply involved with his situation. The operational implication of koinonìa is solidarity, a term that derives from the Latin solidare, whose adjective form is solidus. The so-called “liquid modernity” in which we live is marked by the absence of a solid frame of reference for contemporary humanity. “Solidarity” is mutual support whereby every side of a solid is held and kept firm by all other sides: none of them can stand alone or in separate form.
When we fail to care for somebody who is sick or in need a crack breaks up the solid, as the cracks increase the solid looses its firmness and falls apart. Only a Church that is one of true “solidarity” is a “solid” Church”!
Eating with the poor in a church is also a powerful message on the inherent bond between liturgy and charity.
The church, the space of Jesus’ sacramental presence among mankind, is also the place where we glorify the body of Christ in the body of the poor. In the course of history the edifice of the Church has developed a dimension of hospitality that can also take the shape of a shared meal. Let us remember the great cathedral of the Middle Ages, where strangers and pilgrims were welcomed; thus there is a dimension of hospitality within the liturgical space that has always been present inside the Church. It’s an emblematic act which means that Christian charitas flows from the altar, from the Eucharist, and thus has a theological foundation. Its practice in a liturgical space is its Epiphany.
When it is not rooted in Christ, charity is reduced to a mere form of passive assistance or ideology. Liturgy and charity require a harmonious relationship whose unity is found in Christ: neither of the two must be absolutized or separated from each other. Without charity liturgy becomes self-referential; without liturgy charity looses its primary frame of reference that is the love of God, and it is reduced to an act of philanthropy.