August 26, 2005

Eucharist challenges Catholics
to care for the poor

(Editor’s note: The Catholic Church is observing the Year of the Eucharist. This article is part of a
Criterion series exploring the importance of the Eucharist in all facets of the life of the archdiocese.)

By Sean Gallagher

When he opened the Year of the Eucharist last October, the late Pope John Paul II challenged the faithful to make a conscious connection between the Eucharist and Jesus’ call for us to help those in need.

In his apostolic letter Mane Nobiscum Domine (“Stay with Us Lord”), the pope wrote that the degree to which the faithful are concerned about the needs of the poor “will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged” (#28).

Through their own participation in the Church’s ministry of charity, several Catholics in the archdiocese are responding to the late pope’s words.

Overseeing the agencies in which many of these people minister is David Siler, executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries.

Siler described the invitation that is placed before all Catholics when they receive Communion.

“When we say ‘yes’ to the Eucharist, we’re saying yes to all that Christ was about,” he said. “We all are one body of Christ. And therefore we simply can’t neglect our neighbor who is in need.”

Siler said that receiving Communion ought to spur the faithful to search in “every moment of every day for opportunities … to help someone who is in need.”

Patricia Etling, who directs the Terre Haute Catholic Charities Food Bank, has been involved in charitable ministry for more than 30 years. But her love of the Eucharist goes back even further to the early 1950s when she was a student at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute and spent time in prayer in a eucharistic adoration chapel.

For the past several years, she and her husband, John, who recently retired as the director of Terre Haute Catholic Charities, have spent an hour in prayer on Monday afternoons before the Blessed Sacrament in the perpetual adoration chapel at St. Patrick Parish in Terre Haute, where they are members.

Etling recognized that the Eucharist has enabled her to carry on her ministry of charity for many years.

“I see the support that it gives me, the ability to carry on,” she said. “Sometimes you can get very depressed in this work and feel that you’re not able to handle all of the difficulties you encounter on a daily basis. The spiritual benefit is what is so very important to me then.”

And while Etling says that she is called to recognize the presence of Christ both in the Eucharist and in the poor whom she serves, she admits that doing the latter can be challenging at times.

“When you’re dealing with someone who is so antagonistic and is cussing you and carrying on, it’s really sometimes very hard … ” she said. “Sometimes you have to look pretty deep. Without my faith, I don’t know where I’d be.”

In the end, though, Etling knows that the Eucharist helps her find the presence of Christ even in those who can be difficult to serve and she is thankful for it.

“Without the Eucharist, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “It’s that important to me. I thank God for the Eucharist every day.”

Pope John Paul II also explained the connection between the Eucharist and service to others by pointing to the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, saying that this event “explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally” (#28).

Little Sister of the Poor Celestine Mary Meade, administrator of the St. Augustine Home for the Aged in Indianapolis, takes this challenge seriously and strives to give of herself to the elderly poor to whom she ministers each day just as Christ did at the Last Supper.

“Christ showed us the example by washing the feet of his Apostles, and by listening to his Apostles, and by teaching his Apostles,” she said. Sister Celestine said she was also inspired by Christ’s “example of his kindness and patience and compassion for the suffering. He wanted to heal those that were suffering.”

Like Etling and Sister Celestine Bill Bickel has also dedicated himself to serving those in need as the director of Holy Family Shelter and Holy Family Transitional Housing in Indianapolis.

More than simply sitting behind a desk, Bickel often gets his hands dirty doing handyman work at the facilities he oversees.

The many tasks he does and the challenging stories of the residents that face him from day to day can be draining. But for him, the Eucharist is a source of renewal.

But it is also a challenge to continued this ministry anew each day.

“The Eucharist commits us to the poor,” he said. “If we’re called to recognize Christ in the poorest, then we’re committing ourselves to the Eucharist, which is really a source of healing and unity in the service we do. The essential message is absolutely clear. It makes us one.”

This unity, which underlies the Church’s charitable ministry, is also a key to understanding the Eucharist according to Pope John Paul, who described it as “a project of solidarity for all of humanity” (#27, emphasis in original).

Each year, more than 39 programs agencies under the Catholic Charities umbrella serve more than 200,000 people in central and southern Indiana. A large majority of them are not Catholic.

Siler said that he values this aspect of his ministry because he sees in it the Church increasing human solidarity.

“It allows us in a large way to say that we’re about evangelization and spreading the word of God by loving our brother and sister,” he said. “We don’t have to invite them in and share the Eucharist necessarily, but when we’re loving them, when we’re feeding them, clothing them, housing them, whatever it may be, we’re being Christ to them. That, I think, is terribly important.”

This solidarity that is at the root of charitable work in the Church is also vital to Joann Wood, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis who volunteers once a week at the archdiocesan Crisis Office in Indianapolis.

In her ministry there, she interviews those who come in to determine what assistance they need. The office can provide food, clothing and small amounts of monetary aid. It also can refer those who come to it to other agencies in the city.

Wood, who strives to be a daily communicant, recognized the connection between her devotion to the Eucharist and her service to the poor.

“Going to Communion services and to Mass is extremely important to me,” she said. “Jesus walks with me, and it’s a lot easier for me to understand why people are the way they are and where they are.

“I don’t think that I’ve made a judgment in many, many years because I feel that people don’t want to be poor or set out to be poor. And there are certain faults in me so I can feel freer not to judge those that come in.”

Although Pope John Paul II reminded us that the Eucharist calls Catholics to be concerned about the poor, Siler noted that the giving in charitable work in the Church goes both ways.

Just as in the Eucharist, where the faithful give to God bread and wine and receive the body and blood of Christ in return, Siler said that there is a tremendous return gift to those who give of themselves to those in need around them.

“When we give, we get so much in return,” he said. “It’s the law of the universe, the way that the world is set up. When we give, we get back so much more.” †


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