The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “… the Eucharist is the source and the summit of the Christian life.” This is a verbatim quote from the Vatican II document “Lumen Gentium.”

The Eucharist, being the source of our life as Christians, fills us spiritually and forms us into the Mystical Body of Christ. The Eucharist enables us to love more like Jesus loved. As members of the Body of Christ, we are able to achieve far greater things than we could on our own. Our individual actions are enhanced by the power of Christ living in us, as well as by the works and prayers of others praying with us and for us as we undertake our works of charity, our works of mercy, our works of justice.

When we return to the Eucharist, we bring with us the works of charity, the prayers and our efforts to help build up the Kingdom of God. We offer those actions to the Lord along with the bread and wine, that God will bless them and make them holy.

Some Catholics might raise an objection that this seems to be a new teaching since Vatican Council II and wonder where this thinking, especially the emphasis on issues of social justice, comes from.

Social justice has been a prominent theme of Catholic teaching since Pope Leo XIII’s  1891 encyclical “Rerun Novarum.” But the seeds of that thinking are ancient and can be found in both New Testament and Old Testament writing. One cannot read the Gospels without noticing the emphasis Jesus placed on mercy and on caring for the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan. Consider the words of Jesus: “Go and learn the words ’I desire mercy not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13). Similar themes are echoed in many other New Testament writings.

The Old Testament prophets speak very forcefully about doing justice to the poor. The quote from Jesus cited above actually includes a direct quote from the Prophet Hosea (6:6). These themes abound in the Psalms and the wisdom literature. Consider the following from the Book of Proverbs: “Injure not the poor because they are poor, nor crush the needy at the gate; For the Lord will defend their cause and will plunder the lives of those who plunder them” (Prov 22: 22-23).

That specific passage from Proverbs is particularly meaningful. In Old Testament times, the gate of the city was the “marketplace.” It was also a public space where a court case might be heard. Crushing someone “at the gate” has a two-fold implication. One could crush the poor person either economically or legally, or even both economically and legally.

How often does our contemporary society “crush the poor?” I suggest far more often than most of us would expect.  How severely does our society “crush the poor?” I suggest far more deeply than most of us would expect.

One only needs to look at society and recognize the reality of inter-generational poverty, and the various factors contributing to that reality. The logical question at this point is, “What do I do about it? How can I, individually, make a difference?”

Realistically, any one of us cannot make a significant impact on these problems.   Yet, awareness of the issues and collaboration with others in prayer and concerted efforts to foster meaningful steps to build-up those individuals in our local community, might have a significant and favorable impact.

Finally, I suggest that we recall the words of St. Oscar Romero: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to something and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is the beginning, the step along the way… an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

—Deacon Pete Gummere is director of the diaconate for the Diocese of Burlington and a bioethicist. He serves at Corpus Christi Parish based in St. Johnsbury. He writes and teaches on topics of bioethics and Catholic social teaching.

—Originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.