Since her husband, a World War II veteran, died 10 years ago, Beulah survives on a $699 Social Security check each month.
She spends more than half of her income on heart and high blood pressure medicine. At 82, Beulah faced a disheartening choice: to buy her medicine or to buy food. She explains how she made ends meet:
“I bought what I needed, not what I wanted, and it wasn't very much. I had my health insurance, my utility bills and my telephone bill to pay. I used to pay for just a portion of my medicine so I'd have enough left over for food. There were a lot of foods that I needed to eat to stay healthy, but I only bought what I could afford.”
Is Beulah's case extremely unusual in a nation that possesses the world's largest economy? Not at all, says America's Second Harvest, a charitable organization dedicated to helping America's poor. Second Harvest makes its case by highlighting a few facts:
• Nationwide, 1.48 million households with elderly people said they suffered hunger or the risk of hunger.
• Thirty percent of emergency recipients helped by Second Harvest stated having to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care.
• Twenty-six percent of Medicaid beneficiaries between ages 18-64 couldn't afford to get a prescription filled in the previous year, according to the Center for Studying Health System Change.
• A full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford to pay for fair-market rent for a two-bedroom unit anywhere in America.
Unfortunately, Second Harvest reports that 36% of its emergency recipients said they had to choose between buying food or paying for housing.
Saddest fact of all, preschool and elementary-age children make up the largest number on America's homeless list. The Urban Institute estimates 1.35 million children will be homeless during the course of the year.
These facts push aside any doubt as to the reality of poor people in a rich America. The question now is: What does the Church teach us about helping the poor?
To begin with, the Church reminds us that helping the poor is not optional. Our duty to help the poor, as Catholics, stems from the Church's holiest sacrament, the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out: “The Eucharist commits us to the poor. To receive in truth the Body and Blood Christ has given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren.”
The Fathers of the Church also make it clear that no one can profess a true love for the Lord's Body and Blood at Mass each Sunday while ignoring the poor. For example, St. John Chrysostom said, “You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother … You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food [with] someone judged worthy to take part in this meal … God freed you from all your sins and invited you here, but you have not become more merciful.”
It might not be easy for some to see the relationship between the Eucharist and the poor.
It might not be easy for some to see the relationship between the Eucharist and the poor. Pope John Paul II understands this. In his 1980 letter Dominicae Cenae (The Lord's Supper), the Holy Father sheds light on how the Eucharist connects us to our neighbor and especially to the poor:
“The Eucharist educates us to love in a deeper way; it shows us, in fact, what value each person, our brother or sister, has in God's eyes, if Christ offers himself equally to each one, under the species of bread and wine.”
In other words, the Eucharist can teach us to love others perfectly since it is Christ himself. For this reason, the Church holds that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” The Holy Father maintains that sincere Eucharistic devotion opens our hearts to the needs of others. He explains it this way:
“If our Eucharistic worship is authentic, it makes us grow in awareness of the dignity of each person. The awareness of that dignity becomes the deepest motive of our relationship with our neighbor. This awareness ought to make us particularly sensitive to human suffering and misery, to all injustice and wrong, and to seek the way to rectify them effectively. How the image of each and every one changes when we become aware of this reality, when we make it the subject of our reflections! This sense of the Eucharistic Mystery leads us to a love for our neighbor, to a love for every human being.”
If we take the Eucharist seriously, this Thanksgiving we should dedicate some of our time and resources to doing something for the poor. It could mean working in a soup kitchen, a food pantry, distributing clothing or visiting the sick or elderly. For love of the Body and Blood of Christ, do something for someone else. Our Lord says it best: “insofar as you did this to the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Studies in Greenville, Rhode Island.