(This is an excerpt from the lecture “Surviving the Pandemic: Solidarity at the Margins, December 6, 2021 @ St. John’s University)
In the following series of notes, I would like to offer a theological reflection on solidarity and how the experiences of marginal grassroots movements challenge the way we live Christianity in (post)pandemic times.
As framework, I will use the five senses which COVID-19 easily disrupts when it enters the human body. First we lose our taste and smell, and the rest follows. I would like to ask how this damage to the human body—and by extension, the world body—can recover the neglected dimensions of our witnessing to the faith and Christian theology.
Let me start with taste and smell. I also tested positive with COVID-19 myself sometime in August 2020. Since I was the first victim in our Vincentian community in the Philippines, everyone was afraid and did not know what to do. They thought I was going to die. When I was interviewed during the swab COVID test, the first question the doctor asked me was: “How is you sense of taste?” It was all gone; and my appetite too. Researches also show that the loss of smell goes together with the loss of taste. My body was aching; the only way to counter the virus is to eat, but I could not.
But my reflexive sense came to work right away. Many others around me do not only lose taste; they had nothing to eat. We were into the fifth month of the strictest lockdown the world has even known. People could not go out to work. Paid on daily basis, they had no savings at all. If there was any government subsidy, it was all sporadic. We find people aimlessly walking down the streets, begging for food from passers-by. For sure, there were always beggars in the Philippines. But this time even decently-dressed people are found on the streets begging. The government campaign was “stay at home” or else they will shoot you! But I met a middle aged father who told me: “They can imprison me if they want. I am not afraid. Neither of the police nor COVID. What I am afraid of is when my small children die of hunger.”
This is the context why we were distributing three kilos of rice per household in that parish through a program called “Vincent Helps.” No other item, just rice, in order to prevent hunger and chaos. The breastfeeding mothers were no longer lactating. So it is the small infants who were really hungry; they were all crying. The phenomenon of “community pantries” came at the height of this hunger: people line up the streets from early dawn to late at night just get a meager food pack for one’s family.
So that we go beyond anecdotal accounts, let me show you a graph on “involuntary hunger” in the Philippines. The question they asked was: “Was there a time in the last month that there was really nothing to eat on your table? How often?” Here is the graph from the Philippines. The highest incidence was on September 2020; it reached 31% (which was around 30 million Filipinos, most of them children).
The graph from the Philippines is no different from the world statistics (UN World Food Program). People are hungry worldwide. The red areas, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and parts of Asia, are at the brink of famine even as we speak: 41M in the brink of famine; 584,00 of whom are children.
But what about in the United States? I was hoping it is different here in the US. When I see grocery lines here, it looks like there is real abundance. Much food are just thrown away. You can see it when you eat in restaurants. But statistics tell another story: “food insecure households” count to as high as 10.5% (or that is around 13 million Americans); and those in a “very low food security” is 3.9% (that is around 5.1 million citizens). The hungry people in the US are hidden from sight in the ocean of abundance. To beg becomes more shameful. To suffer hunger in silence becomes more painful.
As a theologian, what really concerns me is how we listen to “hunger” in our church life and in our theologies. For instance, how does our theology of the Eucharist take into account this experience of hunger by millions our people? A cursory reading of the document “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” (November 2021) released just recently by the American bishops does not mention “hunger” at all. The sacrament which the Church offers itself as “food for the hungry” has no word for it. A summary of theological content of the document shows a different focus: sacrificial meal, real presence, eucharistic decorum, adoration, communion with Church doctrines, conversion and worthiness to receive the Eucharist. Not that these things are bad. But it almost forgets that the document also quotes Pope Francis when he said that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47).
Actually, paragraph shortly mentions that the Eucharist leads to the commitment to the poor, even quoting Sts. John Chrysostom and Mother Teresa (no. 37). But right thereafter, six long paragraphs (no. 44-50) talk about the need for conversion, some sins that rupture the Church’s “visible communion” and the denial of Eucharistic communion for those cases, quoting its 2006 Statement on “Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily.” I think this is the main agenda of this document.
This recent US document is but an echo of the main directions Eucharistic theology has traveled from the time of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI—the retrieval of sacrifice, the art of celebration and Eucharistic amazement. I have recently written several articles on this direction of Eucharistic theology in the Magisterium. It makes me sad that the sacrament whose foundation was the feeding of the hungry crowd has no answer to the hunger of millions who are not only victims of pandemic, but also a product of the whole system of global “economy that kills”, to borrow the words of Pope Francis.
Let me go back to the women of Payatas. The churches in the Philippines were closed from March 2020 to the beginning of November 2021—for almost one year and seven months. Let me show these images of churches. While the Eucharist cannot be celebrated there for months, the churches were filled with sacks of rice and vegetables. I asked one parish priest why squash (pumpkins?) fills his sanctuary. He told me: “We have no other space available. My parishioners are hungry. This is also Eucharist in some way. Jesus feeds his people.” There were many churches like this during the pandemic.
For months, our church in Payatas has become the repacking center of our relief operation since there is no other space wide enough to re-pack our goods. And those mothers in the video had to go around distributing food packs each week. It was risky for them. Some of these women-leaders were seniors; the rest also have small children. After three months of relief distribution, we gathered to assess on what we were doing. I posed to them a guide question: “After three months and with all the risks involved, what made you stay? Why are you still here?” One group summarized their sharing this way: “What made us stay? In the bible, Jesus asked us to feed the hungry. How can we stay safe at home when our neighbor is dying? How can we sleep when our neighbor is hungry?” These words are a stinging critique to us in the Church—priests, religious, lay—who were hiding in our houses and rectories in an act of self-preservation. This is true in the Philippines; this might also be true elsewhere.
While listening to them, I remember the words of the prophet Hosea echoed in the Gospel of Matthew: “I desire mercy and compassion, not burnt offerings and sacrifice.” As COVID denies us of taste and smell, we are called to alleviate the hunger of others. To insist on the minutiae of liturgical propriety, on “worthiness”, on the smell of incense and decorum, in the context of disease and hunger is almost blasphemous. To insist on the language “sacrifice” for the Eucharist in times when millions have been offered in the altar of mammon is sacrilegious. No wonder, people do see the Church as answering the questions of people at the brink. It becomes a self-satisfied institution preaching to its choir.
St. John Chrysostom said long time ago: “Of what use is it to load the table of Christ? Feed the hungry and then come and decorate the table. What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”
Vincent de Paul, our patron, also advised his missionaries to sell our chalices when the poor and the sick need them.
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital.