Our Lord’s multiplication of the loaves and fish occupies a privileged place in the list of miracles. It is the only one recorded by all four Evangelists and the only one that prompts such a strong response from the crowd: they want to make him king. It points us to the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. Thus, in this scene our Lord announces the inestimable gift of the Eucharist. In his treatment of the Apostles, He also outlines how the Church’s Shepherds are to continue nourishing us.
Perhaps most significantly, He tests them first: “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” He asks this question not because He needs the answer but because Philip and the others need to think about it. The temptation for the Apostles is to rely on human means. As Philip observes, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” Andrew chimes in with the same natural way of thinking: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” These are voices of discouragement because they are voices of worldly thinking.
Here is the constant temptation of bishops and priests: to rely on human ingenuity and worldly resources rather than on Christ. It’s naturalism, the error of thinking that what a diocese or parish really needs can be found in what the world supplies. If only we have more money, the right resources, the best programs, greater social media presence, etc.
Christ’s Church, born from His pierced side, lives by His grace. We might use human means and worldly resources (as our Lord used bread and fish, the help of the Apostles, and baskets for the fragments). But we do not rely on them. We use worldly means; we rely on divine grace.
Our current crisis is not due to a lack of human ingenuity or worldly resources. The Church in Germany is wealthy – and moribund. It is a crisis of faith and the lack of a supernatural outlook, a failure of confidence in His grace and truth. This scene indicates that such has always been the temptation of the shepherds, and that only by way of such confidence can shepherds feed the flock.
In Saint Mark’s account, when the Apostles voice their concerns about the hungry crowd, Jesus responds, “Give them some food yourselves.” This response has the same purpose as His question about buying enough bread: to bring the Apostles face to face with their – and the world’s – inadequacy. It also leads us to a second pastoral lesson: our Lord incorporates the Apostles into His working of the miracle. He has them tell the people to recline. He has them distribute the loaves and fish. He thus makes them coworkers in the feeding of His flock, participants in that divine work.
Consider the situation of the Apostles. They had to possess both the authority to accomplish what He asked and the humility to do it as ministers. Yes, He had entrusted this task to them, not others. Still, it was His miracle, not theirs. If they don’t exercise that authority, the miracle is impeded. If they don’t do so humbly, it becomes about them and is, again, impeded.
Ecclesial authority is ordered to the handing on of what Christ has given. The twofold temptation for shepherds has always been either to neglect their genuine authority or to abuse it for selfish gain. Or both. As this scene indicates, they are to be ministers, not masters, of Christ’s grace and truth. Theirs is but to do and disappear.
Then comes the final, somewhat curious, command: “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” It seems superfluous. Surely, the One Who multiplies loaves and fish need not concern Himself with leftovers. Of course, He gives the command not for His own benefit but for theirs – and ours.
It is an apostolic duty to gather up what Christ has given – so that it can be handed down to others. This is the grave obligation the Shepherds have to Tradition. They have authority precisely so that they can gather up and hand down the Church’s liturgical and doctrinal patrimony. Failure to do so detaches their authority from Tradition and thus distorts it. Without the content of the Tradition, without a reference to generations past and future, authority becomes just an exercise of power here and now. It leads to a magisterial positivism that values Church authority, not because of its service to what was received and should be handed on, but simply because it has the power to compel.
Such an exchange of authority for positivism traps the faithful in a particular moment of time. It makes them prisoners of the present, temporal orphans with no tradition to receive and, therefore, nothing to hand on to future generations. This dangerous situation makes the faithful prey to whatever new ideas or, more likely, ideologies come along. With no Tradition in which they can stand and by which they can discern, they fall easily into error.
Like the crowds that followed our Lord into the deserted place, the faithful need true shepherds – who rely on Christ’s grace and truth, who exercise genuine authority humbly, and who faithfully preserve and hand on the Church’s Tradition.
*Image: The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), c. 1445-50 [The MET, New York]