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Our readers asked:

Is the story of the loaves and the fishes really a miracle, as in a supernatural experience where Jesus literally changes a little bit of food into a whole bunch? I heard a priest tell me it was just about “sharing.”

Joe Paprocki Answers:

Miracles require faith and faith has no proof. Catholic tradition holds that Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes (the only miracle told by all four Gospels: Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:32-44; Lk 9:10-17; Jn 6:1-13) was indeed a supernatural event, revealing Jesus as the Bread of Life. In the Old Testament, God fed the Israelites in the desert with “bread from heaven” – manna (Exodus 16). It was believed that this miracle would be repeated by the Messiah (the anointed one) when he came. By multiplying the loaves (and fish), Jesus provides for the needs of the people as the Father once did. It is no surprise, then, that the people want to anoint Jesus as their king following this miracle. It is natural for us humans to seek an explanation for all things and we sometimes tend to try to explain away that which cannot be fully explained. The priest who told you that the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was “just about sharing” was trying to do just that. However, we need to remember that we come to know Jesus through what we call the Paschal Mystery – his life, teaching, suffering, death, and Resurrection. A mystery, in biblical thinking, is not something to be solved but something to enter in to. It is not something to explain but something to know. We cannot fully explain Jesus’ miracles, but we can come to know him through them. Faith calls us to ponder and contemplate these miracles, not to try to solve or explain them.

The Author : Joe Paprocki
Joe Paprocki, D.Min., is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press in Chicago. He has over 30 years of experience in pastoral ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Joe is the author of numerous books on pastoral ministry and catechesis, including The Bible Blueprint, Living the Mass, and bestsellers The Catechist's Toolbox and A Well-Built Faith (all from Loyola Press).
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  • Steve

    Jay, I agree, but also point out that the bread we share at the mass sacrifice is different than the multiplication of the loaves performed by Christ.

    Steve Pickens, I’d point out that just because certain portions of scripture contain inerrant, but not literal, truth, that does not mean that each individual should pick and choose which portions of scripture they accept and which they do not without regard to context. The portions that you mention (creation, Jonah, Noah, and I’ll a few more: Revelation, Daniel, Job) are widely acknowledged by 2000 years of Church interpretation to contain nonliteral truth. The Gospel accounts of Christ, however, do not fall into that literary category. It is also important to remember that the Bible is not one book, but a library of 73 books, compiled over centuries, with different authors, genres, and literary styles.

    I’d ask which is more believable: the multiplication of the loaves or the resurrection of the dead? If you are a believer, I would assume that you believe Jesus died and rose from the dead, but why could God, who rose from the dead, not multiply loaves and fish?

    It is a very slippery slope when you start picking and choosing on your own which of Christ’s miracles to accept without regard to the Magisterium.

  • Jay

    The Eucharist is very much about sharing. Pope John Paul II said: “It is important to be ever mindful that communion with Christ is deeply tied to communion with our brothers and sisters. The Eucharistic gathering is an experience of brotherhood. The sign of peace is a particuarly expressive gesture which the faithful are invited to make as a manifestation of the commitment to mutual love which is made in SHARING the one bread.”

  • Steve Pickens

    Mr. Paprocki must not have heard of the Catholic Church’s support of form criticism which limits the inerrancy of the bible to the fact that it relates the story of man’s interaction with a saving God. The bible is not a historical record but a collection of literature. Some elements are purely imagery not fact.
    The multiplication of the loaves a fictional tale told to depict Jesus as a new Moses. Like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree (I cannot tell a lie) the important part of the story for the authors was that Jesus appear as important a leader as Moses. It made no difference to the author whether the event happened or not because, in his or her mind, the story depicts an important truth. Think Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah. These aren’t history but they still convey important lessons about the nature of God and man from the author’s point of view.
    You don’t have to suspend skepticism or rationality to be a believer.

  • G.K. Thursday

    I have to side with Steve here. Many older priests were not educated well in the Scriptures, especially in the 1960s and 70s. They were given a mostly liberal gloss, with little preparation in the original languages, and with an orientation away from “supernaturalism”. How many of your readers recall the heated controversy over Henri de Lubac’s attempt to radically unify the supernatural with the natural with regard to human desire for the summum bonum? Although in itself de Lubac’s approach may have been a good theological move, it also led some pop theology of the 60s and 70s to unify the natural and the supernatural in such a way that the latter became little more than a function of the former. This “intrinsicism” was condemned as a form of Modernism by Pope Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907). However, the tendency to prefer this crass confounding of the supernatural with the natural stands behind these kind of misinterpretations of Scripture.

    Because of the lack of proper Scriptural training many older priests still propose these sorts of interpretations. Thank God that Joe Paprocki gave a very thoughtful and balanced answer.

  • cathyf

    Steve, there is a lot of richness to the miracle stories…

    For example, in the loaves and fishes, we are told that Jesus multiplied a small amount to feed the crowd, as opposed to simply creating the requisite feast from nothing. Which he obviously could have done — it would have been no more miraculous that way. I have heard several homilies over the years pointing out the role of the person who supplied the loaves and fish that Jesus started with, and what we can learn from this about *our* role in the Kingdom of God.

    If that point were poorly delivered, or a listener were being deliberately obtuse, I’m sure that those homilies could be represented as saying “the miracle was really about sharing.” Let’s just say I’ve learned over the years that you need more than fourth-hand heresay to launch a full-bore heresy hunt.

  • Steve

    It is remarkable that Catholic priests would ever argue such nonsense that this is miracle is really about “sharing.” Doing so (either intentionally or unintentionally) undermines the doctrine of the Eucharist and he should be corrected and/or the local Bishop should be notified.

    It is no coincidence that the Eucharist is promised immediately after this in John 6.

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