The Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ spend much of their day ministering to the homeless of Los Angeles. They bring food and hygiene items and even offer haircuts and beard trimmings to those they encounter on the streets. Much of the sisters’ work focuses on ministering to those living on Skid Row, a neighborhood in Los Angeles that has one of the largest populations of homeless people in the country.
But on the evening of July 15, the sisters brought something else — Someone else — to the streets of Skid Row: Jesus Christ.
Alongside friars and volunteers, the sisters hosted a candlelight Eucharistic procession that brought Jesus to the impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood.
Sister Mariana Disciple of the Divine Master, is a member of the community, originally founded in Brazil. The Brazilian native said that the reason for the Eucharistic procession was the realization that, as important as the food and material objects the sisters provide to the people of Skid Row are, they were not enough; what the community needs even more is Jesus.
For Sister Mariana, these two aspects — Eucharistic devotion and service to the poor — go hand in hand.
“The Eucharist is Jesus being the most poor of all,” she said.
Nourished, Then Sent on Mission
Sister Mariana’s words resonate deeply in the midst of the ongoing National Eucharistic Revival, launched by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2022. Now in its second year, the Revival’s efforts are focusing on bringing renewal and devotion to the Eucharist at the parish level, while also looking ahead to the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July 2024, the first Eucharistic Congress in the U.S. since 1976.
But while the efforts of the Eucharistic Revival are well underway across the country, some have expressed skepticism and concern that a focus on Eucharistic devotion and piety will detract from serving the poor and the marginalized. One recent article expressed concern that devotion sought for its own sake fails to further the mission of Jesus by serving the poor and the marginalized.
But for Sister Mariana, Eucharistic devotion and service to the poor are not only not opposed to each other, they’re inseparable.
“You see that people who have this first encounter with the Eucharist, they sooner or later come to the poor,” she said. “God says, ‘Okay, I nourished you; now, I will send you on mission,’ so there is no way to separate the two.”
Sister Maria Dolores of the Eucharistic Heart, another member of the community also from Brazil, emphasized the necessity of being nourished by the Eucharist in order to carry out their mission.
“Our life has to go up on the mountain. I have an encounter with God to nourish myself, to nourish my soul, and then I can go down to serve others; but if I don’t go up, I will go out hungry, not just bodily speaking, but my soul will not have anything else to serve to others,” she said.
The Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ are a religious community of sisters originally founded in Brazil. They serve the poor in five locations across the United States. In Los Angeles, their ministries include street ministry, prison ministry, young-adult ministry, and ministry with women involved in prostitution.
And their ministry is firmly grounded in Eucharistic devotion. The sisters participate in Mass daily, and the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in their convent for three hours every day. Each sister prays a Holy Hour and then goes out to serve the poor.
“Once you go to the Eucharist, once you have a transformation of self by the presence of God, how can you not have the same feelings that God has for the poor?” Sister Mariana asked.
Philip Horn served as a missionary for Christ in the City, a Denver-based organization that befriends those experiencing homelessness, from 2017 to 2018. Horn and the other young-adult missionaries he served with would begin each day with morning prayer and a Holy Hour, followed by breakfast and chores. Then the missionaries would go out to do street ministry, which involved talking to and befriending those living on the streets. The missionaries attended Mass daily and ended their day with night prayer. Horn said all prayer was done in the presence of the Eucharist, either exposed or in the tabernacle.
Like Sister Mariana and Sister Maria Dolores, Horn echoed how the Eucharist was the spiritual nourishment during his time as a missionary, calling it “absolutely essential.”
“It was the source, the means, the spiritual nourishment that provided the strength, grace and love to encounter the poor on the streets and encounter the poverty that exists in my own heart and in the hearts of my fellow missionaries,” he told the Register in an email.
Horn said that the Eucharist and works of charity are “intrinsically complementary.”
“The very night that Christ instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, he commanded his apostles to ‘love one another as I have loved you,’” he said. “The Eucharist was essential to our service to the poor. It provided grace. It provided Christ to our hearts and to the homeless people we would encounter.”
Mary Beth Schmidhamer is a member of the Nocturnal Adoration Society, an association of Catholics who commit to spending one hour once a month in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament during the night, and serves as conference member, among other roles, for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, an organization that donates proceeds from thrift stores to those in need, in central Pennsylvania.
Schmidhamer said Eucharistic adoration helps to strengthen her relationship with Jesus, which gives her the desire to serve and bring others closer to him.
“I think that the Eucharist and service to the poor go hand in hand. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Just pray’ to me; he said, ‘Pray and serve,’ so I think you really have to have both of those things,” she said.
She recalled the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, where Martha was busy preparing the home for Jesus, while Mary simply sat and listened.
“You need to have both [prayer and service]; it can’t be one or the other,” she told the Register. “Between the two, they build on each other.”
“You can’t be a doer all the time,” Schmidhamer added. “Sometimes you just have to be.”
A False Separation
Timothy O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, says that the idea that Eucharistic devotion is at odds with the Church’s commitment to service to the poor is a result of a “modern separation.”
“That we separate them, that you either love the poor or you adore Christ in the Eucharist, is really a sign of how much we’ve forgotten what’s actually in the Tradition,” said O’Malley, who is part of the National Eucharistic Revival executive team and the author of Becoming Eucharistic People.
“To worship Christ in the Eucharistic celebration and to adore his Presence in the hidden presence of love in the Host is in fact already to commit yourself to give of your bodies as a sacrifice of love to all of those in need,” O’Malley added. “This is what Christian worship is.”
O’Malley recognized the fact that many Catholics who go to Mass often forget to love their neighbor. “That’s called sin,” he said. “But the saints are those who actually do this best of all, and they are pointers for all of us.” O’Malley also said that he thinks many of the narratives trying to draw a wedge between the Eucharist and love of the poor are motivated by an ideology “that wants to be a dismissal of the Revival” and is not grounded in real theological concerns.
Tim Glemkowski, executive director of the National Eucharistic Revival, echoed O’Malley, calling the connection between the Eucharist and charity “natural and critical.”
“You look at all the great saints in the Church, and all the great Eucharistic saints were very missional: St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” he said. “The logic of the Church is that the way we go out [on mission] is different. The Church is not an NGO. It’s distinctive in how we go out with Jesus, who is himself close to the poor.”
A Connection From the Beginning
Glemkowski, who was involved in the Revival’s initial strategic planning sessions, said the connection between the Eucharist and charity was “baked into the math of the Revival” from the beginning. In fact, the mission of the Revival’s 56 Eucharistic preachers began with a May 2022 retreat in Chicago that incorporated both Eucharistic prayer and service to the poor.
Glemkowski said that opportunities for service will also be offered during the afternoon breakout sessions at the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in 2024, as well as at some of the stopping points along the four routes of the preceding Eucharistic Pilgrimage. He also stressed that the National Eucharistic Revival itself is an “intentionally decentralized, grassroots movement.” While the goal of the national effort is to frame and communicate the vision of the Revival, the heart of it and its work lies at the hands of the local Church.
Many dioceses are already incorporating these elements, with some offering service opportunities at their local Eucharistic Congresses. In the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, participants at the June 10 Eucharistic Congress were invited to pack meals for the homeless and write cards for the homebound.
O’Malley cited several other concrete examples he has seen of dioceses working to incorporate elements of service, including in the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, where he is working with a priest to create a Eucharistic formation program for those in prisons.
“I was in Salt Lake City just now for a Eucharistic rally,” he continued. “In every dimension of what was talked about, it was how the Eucharist commits us to the work of justice concretely through care for our neighbor.”
Nourished by the Eucharist
An article published in February revealed that the 2024 Eucharistic Congress would cost the USCCB around $14 million, an amount that sparked various criticisms and concerns.
But Sister Mariana expressed the necessity for the Church to be nourished by the Eucharist, even at great cost.
“‘For how much?’ It’s the same question the apostles asked Jesus,” Sister Mariana said. “We need to be nourished by Jesus. If we are not nourished by the Eucharist, our work is in vain.”
The religious sister who has devoted her life to the poor said she is “so happy” about the Eucharistic Revival “because if we take Jesus out of our service with the poor, we cannot rescue them anymore.”
“The question that [the homeless] ask us when we are serving is: ‘Is there a hope?’ There is a hope — if you bring them God.”