In his Angelus address this morning, Pope Francis spoke about today’s Gospel reading, the Miracle of the Loaves that opens the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. As he has done in the past, Pope Francis made some points in his description of this miracle that have been known to make some of his critics’ hair stand on end: first, that the miracle wasn’t a “multiplication” in a proper sense; second, that a central message of the miracle is the importance of sharing; and third, that when we bring what little we have to God, he can use it to work wonders.
Due to his emphasis on these themes, those who are inclined to dislike the pope’s message and prone to searching for errors in his teachings have accused him of advancing the so-called “miracle of sharing” favored by theologians and clergy who want to de-emphasize the supernatural nature of this event. According to this telling, Jesus did not feed the multitude by working a miracle that changed a small amount of food into more than enough to feed thousands. Rather,inspired by the generosity of the boy who came forward with five loaves and two fish, the people in the crowd then began to pull out the food they had already brought with them and shared it with others. The idea presented is that the “real miracle” was that everyone started sharing with one another.
This is not in any way what Pope Francis has said about this event (or multiple events, variations of which are recorded six times across the four Gospels). Anyone who attentively reads Pope Francis’s actual words will realize that he is not denying the miraculous nature of the event, but clarifying what the words of scripture say and the lessons that can be drawn from them.
“Not a multiplication”
Pope Francis has stressed this several times, and has been repeatedly criticized for saying this. He did it once again this morning, when he said, “It is interesting that in the accounts of the multiplication of the loaves in the Gospels, the verb ‘multiply’ never appears: no. On the contrary, the verbs used have the opposite meaning: ‘to break,’ ‘to give,’ ‘to distribute’ (cf. v. 11; Mt 14:19; Mk 6:41; Lk 9:16). But the verb ‘to multiply’ is not used.”
This controversy began very early in his papacy. During his June 2, 2013 Angelus, he made the statement, “This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer.” He was reflecting on Luke’s account of the miracle (Lk 9:11-17), and once again stressed that the miracle is not a “multiplication.” On August 3, 2014, he was once again accused of denying the miracle when he said, “It isn’t magic, it’s a ‘sign’: a sign that calls for faith in God, provident Father, who does not let us go without ‘our daily bread,’ if we know how to share it as brothers.”
It’s true that we often find the word “multiplication” in the subheadings that precede the accounts of this miracle in the bible. A very common title given to this miracle is “The Multiplication of the Loaves.” But remember, just as chapter and verse numbers were added to the scriptures centuries after they were written, these titles are later additions and not biblical canon either.
The point that Francis is trying to make is that the word “multiplication” isn’t quite right. He explained what he meant in that June 2013 address. He points out what the words of the evangelist actually say: “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.”
In other words, Jesus doesn’t wave his hands over the five loaves and then suddenly—poof!—bread and fish everywhere! There is something much deeper at work here than a spectacular magic trick. Jesus looks up to heaven, breaks the bread, and hands it to his disciples. His disciples, in turn, break the bread some more and give it to the people. And it doesn’t run out.
This gesture, when understood more fully, is not simply that Jesus made new bread out of nothing, or that he somehow replicated the five loaves into 5,000 loaves. What’s miraculous is that in this miracle, there were never more than five loaves. Jesus breaks from these five loaves and the bread never runs out. And when all had eaten, they “filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves” (Jn 6:13).
As Pope Francis said, “It is little, it is nothing, but it is enough for Jesus.”
The sharing that allows God to perform wonders
Even with a clear understanding of why Francis objects to the term “multiplication,” one might still ask, “Why does Francis talk about sharing every time he discusses this miracle? Surely he knows the connotations of that word in relation to this miracle!”
I don’t know for certain that the “miracle of sharing” interpretation was a common feature of post-Vatican II South American Jesuit homiletics and biblical studies, but I think it’s safe to assume he’s aware of it. It’s entirely possible that Pope Francis does it in part to grab people’s attention or to make them slightly uncomfortable (he has a knack for doing that, whether he means to or not). But when one listens to what he’s saying attentively, it’s abundantly clear that he is delivering an important message.
After the boy shares his loaves and fishes with Jesus, Jesus breaks the bread and shares it with the disciples. The disciples then break the bread into more pieces and share them with the people. This is not a situation where everyone lines up and waits their turn in the cafeteria line. It truly embodies what Francis calls “a sharing.” If you place yourself in the story (a common spiritual practice for Jesuits like Francis), you visualize the Apostles receiving chunks of barley loaves from Jesus, working their way around the hungry crowd, breaking off chunk after chunk of bread. You can see the pieces of the loaves and even some fish working their way through the crowd, passing from hand to hand. You are hungry, and suddenly someone hands you some of the fragments, and you pass them on until everyone around you has something to eat. When it’s your turn, there’s much more food than you could possibly eat in one sitting.
It is an act of communion. Jesus takes simple gifts of bread and fish, he performs a miracle, and then he enlists the Apostles to carry out the work with him. Ultimately everyone becomes a sharer in this meal, each with equal dignity. This is the type of sharing where everyone who is hungry is fed. This is an image of the Church, of the Eucharist.
What is the lesson here? Pope Francis says, “The true miracle, says Jesus, is not the multiplication that produces vanity and power, but the sharing that increases love and allows God to perform wonders. Let us try to share more: let us try the way Jesus teaches us.”
“What do I bring to Jesus today?”
Pope Francis also wants to let us know that God takes our meager offerings and from these, he can work miracles. The boy in this story is an example for the rest of the 5,000—but Francis is not saying the boy inspired them to bring out the picnic lunches they’d been hiding in their tunics. This boy is an example to those 5,000 and to us because like so many biblical figures, he gave what little he had to Jesus and he trusted (or at least hoped) that Jesus would do something great with it.
I had a pastor who continually reminded us to offer every little thing to God, to put it on the altar and ask Jesus to take our hardships and struggles and sacrifices and do something great with it. Today at Mass, my wife Stephanie and I placed our sorrow over the death of James Mary—our baby who we recently lost to miscarriage—on the altar. The last few months have been difficult. Days after the death of my sister Kate in May, we discovered Stephanie was pregnant. It was unexpected; our youngest is four and we’re in our early 40s, but nevertheless we were happy. We took it as a sign of hope in our sadness. It was as if God had given us a gift of a new, young life after we’d suffered through so much death. Then, six weeks later, it was over. It would be an understatement to say that it felt like a slap in the face.
God accepts and does great things with whatever you give him. And sometimes all you have to give him is your pain.
Image: © Vatican Media