Pope Francis on the “parable” of the loaves and fishes: 11 things to know and share
BY Jimmy Akin
| Posted 1/1/14 at 10:55 PM
Recently Pope Francis has said a few things about the miracle of the loaves and the fishes that have concerned a few people.
They’ve thought he might be denying that it was an actual, physical miracle.
What’s more, the press can’t be blamed, because these statements weren’t the subject of media-distorting headlines or news stories.
They’re right there in the pope’s own words!
So what should we make of these?
Here are 11 things to know and share . . .
1) What, precisely, did Pope Francis say?
He has said two things. One was in a Sunday Angelus he gave on June 2, where he stated:
This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer. Everyone eats and some is left over: it is the sign of Jesus, the Bread of God for humanity.
This makes it sound like he’s advocating the lame “miracle of sharing” theory, according to which people in the crowd had food hidden on their persons and then shared it with others after Jesus’ disciples began distributing the five loaves and two fish.
This theory downgrades the miracle to a purely natural event.
I’ve written about that before. And not just once.
2) What was the other thing he said?
More recently, in a video appeal released in December to help a hunger relief project, he stated:
The parable of the multiplication of the loaves and fish teaches us exactly this: that if there is the will, what we have never ends. On the contrary, it abounds and does not get wasted.
This makes it sound as if he’s saying that the multiplication of loaves and fishes wasn’t even a natural event. Instead, it sounds like he’s saying it’s a mere parable—a fiction designed to teach a lesson.
3) What should we make of these?
It’s understandable, the way Pope Francis phrased himself, that people would be perplexed. But we know Pope Francis often phrases himself in a way that can require further clarification.
That’s just part of who he is, so we should expect things like that.
We also know that, despite the way he phrases himself, particularly when speaking off the cuff (as he often does), that he’s a fundamentally orthodox man—a “son of the Church” as he puts it.
Knowing these two things, we should do the following:
First, ask how his statements might be understood in harmony with tradition (the “hermeneutic of continuity” that Pope Benedict stressed).
Second, read his statements in context to see what light that sheds.
Third, see what else he has said on the subject, to see if that sheds light on it.
4) Has he said other things about the miracle of the loaves and fishes?
You bet! It’s one of his favorite Gospel stories. He’s discussed it at least five times in the last nine months.
He talked about it in a homily in May, an Angelus in June, a general audience in June, an address in July, and a video in December.
That’s once every other month, and given his interest in helping the poor and his willingness to repeat himself, I expect he’s likely to keep mentioning it—with variations—for the duration of his pontificate.
This means we’ll get even more data on his views on the miracle in the future, but it also means we have quite a bit of data now.
Those are good things!
5) What should we make of the “parable” remark?
First, let’s read the way he sets it up. He says:
When the Apostles said to Jesus that the people who had come to listen to his words were hungry, He invited them to go and look for food.
Being poor themselves, all they found were five loaves and two fish.
But with the grace of God, they managed to feed a multitude of people, even managing to collect what was left over and avoiding that it went to waste.
We are in front of a global scandal of around one billion – one billion people who still suffer from hunger today.
We cannot look the other way and pretend this does not exist. The food available in the world is enough to feed everyone.
The parable of the multiplication of the loaves and fish teaches us exactly this: that if there is the will, what we have never ends.
On the contrary, it abounds and does not get wasted.
Notice that he doesn’t start by calling it a “parable.” He starts by recounting it as a historical event: “When the Apostles said to Jesus . . .”
He then compares this incident to the situation we face with respect to hunger today, and he analogizes the two: Just as the Apostles, “with the grace of God,” were able to feed many people and have food left over, so can we today.
I think this is the key to understanding what he is saying.
6) What do you mean?
The word “parable” (in the Italian original, parabola) comes from Greek roots that mean to throw one thing (bole) along side (para) another.
It therefore came to mean “a comparison.”
The meaning we have in English—fictional story designed to teach a lesson—is derived from that, but its basic, ancient meaning was “a comparison.”
To the ancient audience of the Gospels, they were reading about Jesus’ “comparisons.”
The word then passed into Latin as parabola, also meaning a comparison, and then into the modern languages like Italian and English.
Now, I don’t know how much of its word origins the Italian word parabola still has in the way it is used today, but I think that’s the way Pope Francis is using it.
He’s treating the Gospel account as a real, historical event and drawing a comparison between it and our situation to draw out a lesson.
On this understanding, his meaning would be preserved if we rendered his statement like this:
The comparison of the multiplication of the loaves and fish teaches us exactly this: that if there is the will, what we have never ends. On the contrary, it abounds and does not get wasted.
I don’t know if in Italian circles, or Italian theological circles, it is natural to use the word parabola in this way, but given the way he sets it up, and given other things he’s said about the incident, it seems to be the way he is using the word.
7) Can you think of another explanation?
Yes. We’re dealing with a single word here: “Parable.”
If he had said “miracle” instead of “parable,” nobody would bat an eye.
So here’s an alternative theory: Speech fault or typo.
Linguists have found that people use a mistaken word about every 1,000 words.
That happens even when people are reading from prepared texts. I hear it with Mass readers all the time! And way more often than every 1,000 words!
I also hear it with myself.
Not only do I catch myself doing it, I can think of instances where I was deep in thought answering a question on Catholic Answers Live and I thought I said one theologically precise term, but when I listen to the recording afterwards, it turns out a different theologically precise word came out of my mouth.
That could be happening here: It could have simply been a slip of the tongue. He said “parable” when he meant to say “miracle.”
And, in fact, he has said “the miracle of the multiplication of loaves” before (see below).
If so, the translators and transcribers may have just followed suit, without correcting him.
(That’s a known phenomenon as well. The SR-71 Blackbird was originally called the RS-71, but in announcing it, President Lyndon Johnson got the initials backwards, and the military decided not to correct the Commander in Chief’s public announcement.)
Or . . . there could have been a typo in the prepared statement Pope Francis is reading from.
Typos happen All. The. Time. (As I can attest with confidence as a professional author.)
If the person who wrote the text (Pope Francis or someone else) had a brain freeze and wrote “parable” instead of “miracle,” it could have not been caught and ultimately uttered by Pope Francis, who was reading a prepared text Not In His Native Language.
8) What about the sharing theory?
Notice that, even if he were endorsing the sharing theory in his other statement, it would not make the incident a parable in the sense of a fictional story.
The sharing theory and the fiction theory are incompatible (unless one thinks that the story is a fiction about people sharing, which is very unlikely and which, so far as I know, nobody has even proposed).
Again, we should begin by looking at the context of the statement. In his Angelus, Pope Francis said:
The Gospel presents to us the account of the miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves (Lk 9:11-17); I would like to reflect on one aspect of it that never fails to impress me and makes me think. . . .
The disciples are discomfited and answer him: “we have no more than five loaves and two fish”, as if to say, barely enough for ourselves. . . .
Looking at those five loaves, Jesus thinks: this is Providence!
From this small amount, God can make it suffice for everyone.
Jesus trusts in the heavenly Father without reserve; he knows that for him everything is possible. . . .
Jesus then takes those loaves and fish, looks up to heaven, recites the blessing — the reference to the Eucharist is clear — and breaks them and gives them to the disciples who distribute them... and the loaves and fish do not run out, they do not run out!
This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer.
Everyone eats and some is left over: it is the sign of Jesus, the Bread of God for humanity.
So Pope Francis calls this a “miracle.” He then says that “from this small amount, God can make it suffice for everyone” because “for him everything is possible.”
He then says Jesus has “those loaves and fish” distributed, and as the disciples do so “the loaves and fish do not run out.” He even repeats it emphatically: “They do not run out!”
He does not say that they were supplemented by food people had under their clothes (who does that, anyway?). He says that the five loaves and two fish do not run out.
9) What does he mean by saying that the miracle was one of sharing rather than multiplication?
Here’s where I think he phrased himself awkwardly.
First of all, note that he does call it a miracle involving multiplication. He refers to it as “the miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves.”
This tells us that he may not be denying the multiplication when he stresses sharing but is instead stressing a particular aspect of the event.
I think the point he was trying to make is that God accomplished the miracle through an act of sharing, but it wasn’t the crowd sharing the food it was hoarding. It was the Apostles sharing the five loaves and two fish.
When Jesus blessed the five loaves and two fish, God didn’t suddenly multiply them so that the Apostles were looking at a pile of 5,000 fish and 200 loaves, which they then set to work distributing.
Instead, the miracle happened as they were sharing what they had with the crowd. God didn’t multiply it all up front; he kept it from running out.
Yes, there was a multiplication, but it was a multiplication that occurred as the Apostles distributed the tiny amount of food they had.
So there was a real, physical miracle, but it was accomplished through an act of the Apostles sharing what was originally a tiny amount of food.
I think Pope Francis emphasizes this because he’s drawing a parallel to our situation: It will only be in the process of addressing the hunger problem that the solution will be found.
We should not expect God to materialize a big pile of food up front. Instead, as we ramp up the process of feeding the hungry, God will enable us to find new solutions to what presently seem like insoluble hurdles.
Is he saying this awkwardly? Yes. He said it in a way that if you take the single sentence out of its context, you could come to a different conclusion. He could have said it more clearly.
10) Is there other evidence that confirms this view?
Indeed, there is.
Already in his May homily, Pope Francis had stated:
Where does the multiplication of the loaves come from?
The answer lies in Jesus’ request to the disciples: “You give them…”, “to give”, to share.
What do the disciples share? The little they have: five loaves and two fish.
However it is those very loaves and fish in the Lord's hands that feed the entire crowd.
And it is the disciples themselves, bewildered as they face the insufficiency of their means, the poverty of what they are able to make available, who get the people to sit down and who — trusting in Jesus’ words — distribute the loaves and fish that satisfy the crowd.
Notice his emphasis on the Apostles giving (“You give them,” “to give,” to share). He then asks “What do the disciples share?”
This indicates that, when he thinks of sharing in terms of this narrative, he’s thinking of the Apostles sharing, not the crowd, in confirmation of the point I made above.
Further, he says “It is those very loaves and fish in the Lord’s hands that feed the entire crowd.” And that “the loaves and fish . . . satisfy the crowd.”
It couldn’t get much plainer than that: This is a miracle, and not one of the crowd sharing among itself.
11) Can it be clearer?
In his June general audience (just a few days after the Sunday Angelus), he stated:
A few days ago, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, we read the account of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. Jesus fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish.
Note that he again calls it “the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves” and states frankly that “Jesus fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish.”
That’s quite clear. This was a miracle of multiplication, not just an inspirational act of natural sharing by the hoarders in the crowd.
Given that this audience was given on June 5, just three days after the Angelus of June 2, I can’t help wondering if this wasn’t a deliberate clarification.
In any event, it seems clear that Pope Francis does regard the multiplication of loaves as a real historical event (not an instructive fiction) that involved a miracle of multiplication that occurred when the Apostles (not the crowd) began to share the five loaves and two fish.
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