The Catholic Church’s shepherds have one task: to feed their flocks. In a way, it’s that simple.
If priests feed their flocks well by leading them to verdant pastures and still waters with dynamic homilies that nourish the soul, feeding their minds with inspirational messages and providing a festive approach to a person in search for God, then the flock will be less inclined to wander far from the fold. If the pastor is good at shepherding, the sheep usually responds to his voice — even when he’s asking for extra donations for some church project.
Priests who work in the vineyard, and even those who “smell” like their sheep, know that feeding the sheep is not that easy. It’s similar to a parent trying to feed junk-food-addicted children a bowl of spinach. On a practical level, priests may want to spend that time educating and inspiring people, but they just don’t have time to do that with all the administration. And, unfortunately, it can be very discouraging to see how RCIA numbers don’t compare to those who leave the Church.
But there is hope in helping priests to feed the flock! It’s called a “theology of food”! It’s an invitation for shepherds to return to the basics of their calling: feed their flock! I don’t want to oversimplify the priests’ responsibilities, but I certainly don’t want to complicate it either. So, let’s chew on this Theology of Food, especially since Jesus reveals himself in the edible elements of bread and wine.
By way of introduction to a theology of food, we can simply say, priesthood and food go hand in hand.
Priests Love to Eat
Priests should be connected to the culture, and they have to meet people where they gather — and the flock are in restaurants, food pavilions, food-truck lines and definitely at their own family dinner tables. If we don’t meet people at the table, then we won’t have an opportunity to engage people in the most effective way possible. Isn’t that why most parishes have spaghetti or potluck dinners and coffee and donut Sundays? Isn’t that the real reason why parishioners invite priests to their home? Isn’t that what Jesus did, even when he was accused of eating with sinners?
In many ways, a priest’s natural love for food stems from his integral part of the mission of the Trinity, which is beautifully represented in Andrei Rublev’s icon representing the three Divine Persons sitting around a dinner table. Priests are people of communion, and that happens with food! The clergy know this on a human level. Do they act on this instinct on a pastoral and theological level?
God’s Weapon of Choice
There is a war between God and the devil. And the weapon to destroy God’s children is food. That’s what the devil used to lure Adam and Eve away from God’s saving dietary plan. Time and time again, the devil tries to disrupt salvation history by tempting the Chosen People with forbidden foods. The evil one seeks to take God’s place by feeding our lusts and unhealthy cravings and by distracting us with bad things that look good.
Without a discerning spirit, a flock will confuse the voice of the devil with the voice of the Shepherd who wants to lead us to verdant pastures and still waters. Yes, food means much more to theology than biology! Pastors have a great responsibility to encourage parishioners to be more discerning with how they’re feeding the body, mind and soul, because the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour — but to devour us from the inside!
God Became Food
If we consider Scripture carefully, food shows up so obviously from the beginning to the end (and everywhere in between). The food, or a meal, highlights significant periods of salivation history. For example, the meal commemorates the Passover; food ratified covenants; God sent pestilence to destroy the land and food supplies in response to sin; the Chosen People searched for the land flowing with milk and honey; God brought back together Joseph’s family after a famine, even after the brothers were going to feed the favorite child to the beasts.
Time and time again, a meal is shared, a mustard seed is planted, a widow’s last cake is baked for a prophet, and the laws forbidding certain foods becomes the cause for the Maccabee martyrs. And, finally, in order to prove that God provides, he sent his only son to us born in the city of Bethlehem — a word in Aramaic that means “House of Bread.”
Food is what the people of Israel grumbled for in the desert. In their hearts, they desired food that would, as the serpent tempted, “make them into gods.” And so to answer their prayer, God sent his only son to become the food to help us to become more like him through the presence of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, in its proper form of bread and wine, we can point to it and say: “There, in that tabernacle, in that monstrance, or in my hand and on my tongue, God is fulfilling his promise!” We confidently can say: “In this bread and wine, he is with us!” God could have chosen any other form to reveal his power, strength and love, yet he chose humble elements of bread and wine to manifest himself. God became food because he knows that we are what we eat. Even more plainly, God became food because he loves us and knows that if we don’t eat, or eat the wrong things, we could die. Food in God’s hands can feed 5,000 prodigal sons for an eternity.
Food for Others
A theology of priesthood calls for the man to be the priest, victim and altar of sacrifice. As a priest, he makes things holy by extending a blessing upon them through the proper recitation of the formula and a solemn gesture of his hands. But he makes people holy by his presence, by how he feeds and nourishes them, and by becoming a true companion. He becomes a victim when he, like the lamb for the slaughter, offers himself freely to others; when he makes himself as vulnerable as the good Samaritan who provides compassion and hospitality; and when he, like St. Igantius of Antioch, experiences himself as wheat being ground in the teeth of the lions and his oppressors. Finally, he becomes the altar of sacrifice because only through his hands can the table at the center of his church become the place where he, the spiritual father, provides the Daily Bread! It’s around him, just as much as the physical altar, where the people of God experience communion with God, the presence of God and the love of God. It’s through him that people are fulfilled. When he becomes the altar of sacrifice, he helps people to feel like they actually have a place reserved at the banquet of the Lord.
Food and priesthood go hand in hand. But that’s easy to forget as we are so busy with day-to-day concerns, our own spiritual practices, ongoing formation and, of course, all the administrative details. But if we would just take time to consider how we feed ourselves, we may discover a constructive critique on how we feed others. Remember, nemo dat quod non habet (“we can’t give what we don’t have”). From a faithful foodie point of view, if our experience of being fed by God is rushing through meals, unhealthy binging and eating alone more often than not, then what will we have to give to God’s people?
The Sacredness of Our Food
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The theology of food, as innocent and perhaps as silly as it may seem, can have such deep impact on the priesthood. A deeper meditation on God as food, and food as the sacrament and sacramental, may slow us down and not treat life like fast-food. It may make us more discerning with what we put into our bodies, minds and souls. It certainly can help us to become healthier temples for the Holy Spirit, while also making us good examples of a healthy priest for God’s people. It will help us to become more social by being vulnerable by eating with others — even sinners.
It could help more outgoing personalities become more reflective by eating slowly and taking time to fast, which I consider to be a spiritual picnic with the Lord in the garden of Gesthemane. It can help us to become better shepherds who know how to feed the flock with spiritual portion control, turning a leftover homily into something more dynamic and digestible, and even help us to “plate” (present) our message in a more attractive (not boring) way! If we remember that the Good News is good food, we will create in our parishioners a true hunger for the Lord, and they will come to Mass feeling satisfied, not underfed or force-fed! And, above all, our people — the People of God — will experience a true communion and community around that sacred table.
I believe that priests are called to be “disciples” of food. That simply means students of food. That’s the image I get whenever I sit before the Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic adoration. I believe that as I gaze upon that sacred host as food for my soul, God is trying to teach me something. God is trying to create hunger in me. God is reminding me that priests are supposed to be the tabernacles and the monstrances, revealing God’s providential presence as the true viaticum as we are led and called to lead others. Our parishioners ought to be like the sheep who can sense his presence with the sacred ring of the altar’s dinner bell.
As priests, our job is to lead the flock to the eternal banquet. The best way to do that is with the sacred food that God puts in our hands.
FATHER LEO E. PATALINGHUG is the founder and director of PlatingGrace.com, and the host for EWTN’s “Savoring Our Faith” and the podcast “Shoot the Shiitake with Father Leo.” Visit FatherLeoFeeds.com for more on his books, parish pilgrimages, to schedule him for an event and for easy-to-follow recipes.