What Makes Us Catholic?

Setting us apart from all other religions, the Eucharist is what makes us Catholic. It’s no secret that the major dispute during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century revolved around the Eucharist. Was it a sacrifice? Was it truly and substantially the Body and Blood of Christ? The Catholic Church responded with a resounding “Yes.” The Eucharist makes the Church (Lumen Gentium), informs the way Scripture is interpreted (Dei Verbum), and shapes the way Catholics live in the world (Gaudium et Spes). The Eucharist accounts for a fundamental difference that makes us Catholic.

St. John’s Gospel offers an example of this difference. Though John provides no institution narratives for the Eucharist during the Last Supper, there is a regal, even magisterial teaching on the Eucharist in the well-known “Bread of Life Discourse.” It opens with an event familiar to the Synoptic Gospels, namely, the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Jesus turned to Philip and asked: “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” (Jn. 6:5) He asked this question to test Philip, as he does each one of us when faced with today’s overwhelming challenges. All four Gospels describe the inability of the disciples to meet so great a need and how Jesus miraculously multiplied a meager number of barley loaves and fish to feed 5,000 men (Jn. 6:10) – more when women and children are factored in.

All of those present that day were sated and filled from eating the loaves and fish. Jesus, therefore, said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over.” (Jn. 6:12) So, “they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.” (Jn. 6:13)

It’s worth pausing here and reflecting on what exactly was gathered up into the baskets. These were leftovers of bread and fish, pieces of food with bites taken out of them and then strewn about upon the ground. The food was bitten by people knowing little hygiene; handled by people, young and old, who did not wash their hands before dinner; food peppered with grass and dirt after laying on the ground for some time. Why would Jesus instruct his disciples to gather up such food? Wouldn’t it have been better to just leave it for animals and beasts to consume at night?

There is a clue to answering these questions in the reasons Jesus gives for the gathering, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” (Jn. 6:12) Jesus did not wish to waste food, to be sure, but there is yet another reason for the gathering. In his polemic with the Jewish leaders, Jesus declared himself to be “the bread of life.” (Jn. 6:35)

The Father has given us “true bread” (Jn. 6:32), Jesus Christ, come down from heaven to give life to the world: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (Jn. 6:37-38)

Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto, c. 1550 [Met Museum]

What is the will of the one who sent Jesus? “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.” (Jn. 6:39) Here a parallel is drawn between the fragments of bread and fish left over from the meal and we ourselves who are leftovers from the original dispensation of creation “in the beginning” before the Fall. We are not the first serving of creation. We are all leftovers.

So, what is our attitude toward leftovers? A common practice is to throw them away. In some ways, it is easier to make a meal from fresh ingredients than from a variety of leftovers in the refrigerator. How does Jesus view leftovers? He wants none of them to be lost.

In the economy of food stuffs the Father gave Jesus abundant bread and fish in the miracle of the loaves and in the economy of salvation the Father has given him: Us! Jesus instructs his disciples, therefore, to gather up the left over fragments so that nothing of what the Father has given him will be wasted.

For similar reasons, Jesus entrusted us to Peter, saying three times: “Feed my lambs” (Jn. 21:15-17), i.e., tend to the left-overs for whom I gave up my life! Jesus invites Peter, the other apostles, and all other members of the Church according to the grace and Sacraments received to do likewise.

This entire truth regarding the mission of Christ is played out again and again in the Eucharist. During Mass, the Gathering-Father sends his Son, Jesus Christ the “true bread” come down from heaven, to accomplish his will. Jesus, who was obedient to the Father even unto death on the cross (Phil. 2:8), comes to gather up the fragments of our lives back to the Father.

What makes us Catholic? The Catholic Church, like the whole human community of men and women conceived into this world, is composed of leftovers from the Fall. Yet members of the Church differ from the broader human community in that they are a communion in the Holy Spirit of men and women striving to love leftovers instead of succumbing to the temptation of throwing them away.

Human life has become an expendable commodity today, whether in the womb through abortion or among the weak and “deplorable ones” who fall victim to the cultural pressures of eugenic logic in euthanasia. Our Founder in the way of salvation, Jesus Christ, did not, nor does he now in the Eucharist, throw us away but rather bids us: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn. 13:34)

And that is what makes us Catholic: heeding the Word given for many in the Eucharist.

Fr. Dan Pattee, TOR, PhD is an affiliate scholar with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University where he previously taught theology for 29 years. He earned his S.T.L. from the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage & Family in Rome and his doctorate in theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He currently serves as chaplain to the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart in Alhambra, CA.