It is probable that many of our readers received their catechism classes during the turbulent years of the 70’s, and may have heard, wide-eyed and scandalized, that the well-known miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, transmitted in the Gospel, was nothing more than a metaphor to symbolize the power of sharing with others. It was a time in which many things in the Church were re-interpreted by some… and much innocence was lost.
Despite such misguided flights of imagination, the fact is that this particular miracle of the multiplication of loaves appears on two different occasions in the Gospels, the first of which is narrated by all four Evangelists, perhaps the only miracle that receives this attention. That is why it is not difficult to have quite a complete picture of the circumstances that surrounded the happening: we even know what type of loaves they were, and where they came from. According to Saint John, they were barley loaves provided by a young boy. The four Gospels carefully recount the number of those benefited: more or less five thousand men, without counting the women and children.
Therefore, it was a miracle experienced by a significant number of witnesses who were hungry and were aware of the lack of food, but who ended up satisfying themselves on the loaves and fishes. Moreover, they could attest to the reality of the miracle by the leftovers collected afterwards by the disciples.
The same happened with the second multiplication, narrated in the Synoptics: in this episode, Jesus fed around four thousand people with seven loaves and a few small fish. And though Jesus was accused by his detractors of all sorts of lies, even they could not o so far as to deny this miracle, which was so amply witnessed.
In light of such a clear narration, would it be licit for a Catholic to doubt the power of Christ? Wouldn’t he who walked on water and transformed water into wine have the power to multiply loaves and even produce them out of nothing?
Just as those who sought Jesus, eager to learn his doctrine, the Church also transmits very firm and accessible teachings to all of us regarding the divine power of our Redeemer, and these specific episodes, as well as indicating how the other facts narrated in the Gospels should be interpreted.
Enter the various parts of our study
I – Christ’s miracles prove his divinity
II – Tradition and Sacred Scripture: the deposit of the Word of God confided to the Church
III – The teachings of the Church regarding the miracles of the multiplication of the loaves
But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf. (Jn 5:36-37)
If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize (and understand) that the Father is in me and I am in the Father. (Jn 10:37-38)
You who are Israelites, hear these words, Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. (Acts 2:22-23)
God enables man to work miracles for two reasons. First and principally, in confirmation of the doctrine that a man teaches. […] Secondly, in order to make known God’s presence in a man by the grace of the Holy Ghost: so that when a man does the works of God we may believe that God dwells in him by His grace. Wherefore it is written (Gal. 3:5): ‘He who giveth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you.’ Now both these things were to be made known to men concerning Christ—namely, that God dwelt in Him by grace, not of adoption, but of union: and that His supernatural doctrine was from God. And therefore it was most fitting that He should work miracles. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica III, q.43, a.1)
The Gospels were written by men who were among the first to have the faith (cf. Mk 1:1; Jn 21:24) and wanted to share it with others. Having known in faith who Jesus is, they could see and make others see the traces of his mystery in all his earthly life. From the swaddling clothes of his birth to the vinegar of his Passion and the shroud of his Resurrection, everything in Jesus’ life was a sign of his mystery (cf Lk 2:7; Mt 27: 48; Jn 20:7). His deeds, miracles and words all revealed that ‘in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily’ (Col 2:9). His humanity appeared as ‘sacrament’, that is, the sign and instrument, of his divinity and of the salvation he brings: what was visible in his earthly life leads to the invisible mystery of his divine sonship and redemptive mission. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 515)
Christ proves His own divinity and the divine origin of His mission by miracles; He teaches the multitudes heavenly doctrine by word of mouth; and He absolutely commands that the assent of faith should be given to His teaching, promising eternal rewards to those who believe and eternal punishment to those who do not. […] Whatsoever He commands, He commands by the same authority. He requires the assent of the mind to all truths without exception. It was thus the duty of all who heard Jesus Christ, if they wished for eternal salvation, not merely to accept His doctrine as a whole, but to assent with their entire mind to all and every point of it, since it is unlawful to withhold faith from God even in regard to one single point. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Satis cognitum, no. 8, June 29, 1896)
[That faith is consonant with reason ].However, in order that the ‘obedience’ of our faith should be ‘consonant with reason’ (cf. Rom 12:1), God has willed that to the internal aids of the Holy Spirit there should be joined external proofs of His revelation, namely: divine facts, especially miracles and prophecies which, because they clearly show forth the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are most certain signs of a divine revelation, and are suited to the intelligence of all [can. 3 and 4]. Wherefore, not only Moses and the prophets, but especially Christ the Lord Himself, produced many genuine miracles and prophecies; and we read concerning the apostles: ‘But they going forth preached everywhere: the Lord working withal and confirming the word with signs that followed’ (Mk 16:20). (Denzinger-Hünermann 3009. Vatican Council I, Session III, Constitution Dei Filius, April 24, 1870)
As many as the discussions that would like to create, or that in fact, have been instigated regarding the subject of miracles (to which, on the other hand, the Christian apologists have already responded), it is certain that the ‘miracles, prodigies and signs’, attributed to Jesus and inclusively to his Apostles and disciples who worked ‘in his name’, may not be separated from the authentic context of the Gospel. […] Whatever may have been the subsequent rebuttals, from the genuine sources of the life and teachings of Jesus a first certainty emerges: the Apostles, the Evangelists and the whole primitive Church saw in each one of the miracles the supreme power of Christ over nature and laws. (John Paul II. General audience, no. 1, December 2, 1987)
The analysis not only of the text, but also of the context, speaks in favor of their ‘historic’ character, testifying that they are facts which occurred in reality, and truly performed by Christ. Those who approach them with intellectual uprightness and scientific expertise cannot lay them aside with just a word, as if they were merely posterior inventions. With respect to this, it is well to observe that these facts are not only testified and narrated by the Apostles and by the disciples of Jesus, but they are also confirmed in many cases by his adversaries. For example, it is very significant that the latter did not deny the miracles performed by Jesus, but rather they sought to attribute them to the power of the ‘devil’. (John Paul II. General audience, no. 3-4, November 11, 1987)
In the Gospel of John we do not find similar forms, but rather the detailed description of the seven happenings that the Evangelist calls ‘signs’ (and not miracles). With this expression he wishes to indicate that which is most essential in these occurrences: the demonstration of the action of God in person, present in Christ, while the world ‘miracle’ indicates more the ‘extraordinary’ aspect that these happenings have in the eyes of those who have seen them or heard of them. However, before concluding his Gospel, John also tells us that ‘Jesus did many other signs in the presence of (his) disciples that are not written in this book’ (Jn 20: 30). And gives the reason for the choice that he made: ‘But these are written that you may (come to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name’ (Jn 20: 31). To this purpose the Synoptics as well as the fourth Gospel are directed: to show through miracles the truth of the Son of God and lead to the faith, which is the beginning of salvation. (John Paul II. General audience, no. 6, November 11, 1987)
[The demonstrability of revelation] If anyone shall have said that miracles are not possible, and hence that all accounts of them, even those contained in Sacred Scripture, are to be banished among the fables and myths; or, that miracles can never be known with certitude, and that the divine origin of the Christian religion cannot be correctly proved by them: let him be anathema. (Denzinger-Hünermann 3034. Vatican Council I. Dei Filius, April 24, 1870)
II – Tradition and Sacred Scripture: the deposit of the Word of God confided to the Church
Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort (cf. Pius XII, , ‘Munificentissimus Deus,’ Nov. 1, 1950; St. Cyprian, Letter 66, 8). But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on (cf. Vatican Council I, Dz 1792 (3011)), has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church (cf. Pius XII, ‘Humani Generis’ Aug 12, 1950), whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Vatican Council II, Constitution Dei Verbum, no. 10, November 18, 1965)
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith (1 Tim 3:15). […] These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics. (Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies, III 1,1:1,2)
Then there are other assailants of Holy Scripture who misuse principles – which are only sound, if kept within due bounds – in order to overturn the fundamental truth of the Bible and thus destroy Catholic teaching handed down by the Fathers. If Jerome were living now he would sharpen his keenest controversial weapons against people who set aside what is the mind and judgment of the Church, and take too ready a refuge in such notions as ‘implicit quotations’ or ‘pseudo-historical narratives,’ or in ‘kinds of literature’ in the Bible such as cannot be reconciled with the entire and perfect truth of God’s word, or who suggest such origins of the Bible as must inevitably weaken – if not destroy – its authority. What can we say of men who in expounding the very Gospels so whittle away the human trust we should repose in it as to overturn Divine faith in it? They refuse to allow that the things which Christ said or did have come down to us unchanged and entire through witnesses who carefully committed to writing what they themselves had seen or heard. They maintain – and particularly in their treatment of the Fourth Gospel – that much is due of course to the Evangelists – who, however, added much from their own imaginations; but much, too, is due to narratives compiled by the faithful at other periods, the result, of course, being that the twin streams now flowing in the same channel cannot be distinguished from one another. (Denzinger-Hünermann 3654. Benedict XV, Encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, September 15, 1920)
The Synod of the Vatican adopted the teaching of the Fathers, when, as it renewed the decree of Trent on the interpretation of the divine Word, it declared this to be its mind, that in matters of faith and morals, which pertain to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be held as the true sense of Holy Scripture which Mother Church has held and holds, whose prerogative it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of Scripture; and, therefore, it is permitted to no one to interpret the Holy Scripture against this sense, or even against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers. (Denzinger-Hünermann 3281. Leo XIII, Encyclical Providentissimus Deus, November 18, 1893)
Wherefore, it is clear that that interpretation must be rejected as senseless and false, which either makes inspired authors in some manner quarrel among themselves, or opposes the teaching of the Church. . . . (Denzinger-Hünermann 3283. Leo XIII, Encyclical Providentissimus Deus, November 18, 1893)
With truly lamentable results, our age, casting aside all restraint in its search for the ultimate causes of things, frequently pursues novelties so ardently that it rejects the legacy of the human race. Thus it falls into very serious errors, which are even more serious when they concern sacred authority, the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and the principal mysteries of Faith. The fact that many Catholic writers also go beyond the limits determined by the Fathers and the Church herself is extremely regrettable. In the name of higher knowledge and historical research (they say), they are looking for that progress of dogmas which is, in reality, nothing but the corruption of dogmas. (Pius X. Decree Lamentabili sane exitu, July 3, 1907)
[Condemned and proscribe]: 14. In many narrations the Evangelists recorded, not so much things that are true, as things which, even though false, they judged to be more profitable for their readers.
Until the time the canon was defined and constituted, the Gospels were increased by additions and corrections. Therefore there remained in them only a faint and uncertain trace of the doctrine of Christ. (Pius X. Decree Lamentabili sane exitu, July 3, 1907)
Moreover, in order to check the daily increasing audacity of many modernists who are endeavoring by all kinds of sophistry and devices to detract from the force and efficacy not only of the decree Lamentabili sane exitu (the so-called Syllabus), issued by our order by the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition on July 3 of the present year, but also of our encyclical letters Pascendi dominici gregis given on September 8 of this same year, we do by our apostolic authority repeat and confirm both that decree of the Supreme Sacred Congregation and those encyclical letters of ours, adding the penalty of excommunication against their contradictors, and this we declare and decree that should anybody, which may God forbid, be so rash as to defend any one of the propositions, opinions or teachings condemned in these documents he falls, ipso facto, under the censure contained under the chapter ‘Docentes’ of the constitution Apostolicae Sedis, which is the first among the excommunications latae sententiae, simply reserved to the Roman Pontiff. This excommunication is to be understood as salvis poenis, which may be incurred by those who have violated in any way the said documents, as propagators and defenders of heresies, when their propositions, opinions and teachings are heretical, as has happened more than once in the case of the adversaries of both these documents, especially when they advocate the errors of the modernists that is, the synthesis of all heresies. (Pius X. Motu Proprio Proprio Praestatia Scripturae, November 18, 1907)
Finally, those who instruct the Christian people with sacred preaching have the necessity of the greatest prudence. Before all else, teach doctrine, remembering the recommendation of Saint Paul: ‘Attend to yourself and to your teaching, persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you’ (1Tim 4:16). Absolutely abstain from proposing vain or insufficiently proven novelties. Present new opinions, if necessary, that have been solidly demonstrated with caution, keeping in mind the condition of the listener. While narrating biblical facts, do not add fictitious circumstances that do not correspond with the truth. This virtue of prudence should be above all a characteristic of those who spread writings of circulation for the faithful. Your preoccupation should be in putting the riches of the divine word with clarity ‘so that the faithful feel moved and encouraged to better their own lives’ (Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu). Be scrupulous in not ever separating from the common doctrine or from the tradition of the Church, not even in small things, taking advantage of the progress of biblical science and the results of the modern investigators, but avoiding all of the rash opinions of the innovators (cf. Apostolic Letter Quoniam in re biblica; Pius X Acta, III, p. 75). It is severely prohibited to you to spread, to collaborate with a pernicious aspiration for novelties, some attempts for the resolution of the difficulties, without a prudent selection and serious examination, confusing in this way the faith of many people. (Pontifical Biblical Commission, The truth about the Gospels, no. 4, April 21, 1964)
The Bible is then, the principal and most accessible source of sacred eloquence. But those who constitute themselves as announcers of novelties, do not nourish the ensemble of their speeches from the font of living water, but rather foolishly and mistakenly approach the faulty cisterns of human wisdom; consequently, putting aside the doctrine inspired by God – or that of the Fathers of the Church and of the Councils – all they do is expose the names and ideas of profane and contemporary writers, still living: these ideas frequently give rise to ambiguous and very dangerous interpretations. (Leo XIII cited by St. Pius X. Moto proprio, Sacrorum antistitum, September 1, 1910)
They deny that there is any such thing as revelation or inspiration, or Holy Scripture at all; they see, instead, only the forgeries and the falsehoods of men; they set down the Scripture narratives as stupid fables and lying stories: the prophecies and the oracles of God are to them either predictions made up after the event or forecasts formed by the light of nature; the miracles and the wonders of God’s power are not what they are said to be, but the startling effects of natural law, or else mere tricks and myths; and the Apostolic Gospels and writings are not the work of the Apostles at all. These detestable errors, whereby they think they destroy the truth of the divine Books, are obtruded on the world as the peremptory pronouncements of a certain newly-invented ‘free science;’ a science, however, which is so far from final that they are perpetually modifying and supplementing it. And there are some of them who, notwithstanding their impious opinions and utterances about God, and Christ, the Gospels and the rest of Holy Scripture, would be considered both theologians and Christians and men of the Gospel, and who attempt to disguise by such honourable names their rashness and their pride. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Providentissimus Deus, no. 10, November 18, 1893)
III – The teachings of the Church regarding the miracles of the multiplication of the loaves
And he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over – twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children. (Mt 14:19-21)
Jesus summoned his disciples and said, ‘My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, for fear they may collapse on the way. ‘The disciples said to him, ‘Where could we ever get enough bread in this deserted place to satisfy such a crowd?’Jesus said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ ‘Seven,’ they replied, ‘and a few fish.’ He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, gave thanks, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied. They picked up the fragments left over – seven baskets full. Those who ate were four thousand men, not counting women and children. (Mt 15:32-38)
So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets 8 with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.’ Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone. (Jn 6:13-15)
The multiplication of the loaves was not effected by way of creation, but by an addition of extraneous matter transformed into loaves; hence Augustine says on Jn 6:1-14: ‘Whence He multiplieth a few grains into harvests, thence in His hands He multiplied the five loaves’: and it is clearly by a process of transformation that grains are multiplied into harvests. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica III, q. 44, a.4, ad.4)
A great miracle: but we shall not wonder much at what was done, if we give heed to Him That did it. He multiplied the five loaves in the hands of them that brake them, who multiplieth the seeds that grow in the earth, so as that a few grains are sown, and whole barns are filled. But, because he doth this every year, no one marvels. Not the inconsiderableness of what is done, but its constancy takes away admiration of it. But when the Lord did these things, He spake to them that had understanding, not by words only, but even by the miracles themselves. (Saint Augustine. Sermon 130, no. 1)
But what is divine is that the five loaves were more than sufficient for five thousand people, for clearly it was not this little food that had satisfied the people, but its multiplication. As you have seen, as though by an irrepressible font abounding from the hands of the distributors the fragments that they had not yet divided, and without daring to touch them with their fingers, the pieces spontaneously appeared. When such things are read, how can we be surprised with the perpetual movement of the waters or become amazed that the liquid fonts flow without ceasing when a solid substance expands in abundance? This happens to make us see that which we ordinarily do not see. By one thing He has manifested with such evidence that he is equally the Author of the others and the Creator of all of material nature, that was not found, but made, and supplies his successive contributions to the production of all things. (Saint Ambrose. Treatise on the Gospel of Saint Luke, bk. VI, no. 84-85)
‘And He brake and gave to the disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.’ The five loaves He brake and gave, and the five multiplied themselves in the hands of the disciples. And not even here doth He stay the miracle, but He made them even to exceed; to exceed, not as whole loaves, but as fragments; to signify that of those loaves these were remains, and in order that the absent might learn what had been done. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homily on Matthew, Homily XLIX)
And I marvel not only at the quantity of loaves created, but besides the quantity, at the exactness of the surplus, that He caused the superabundance to be neither more nor less than just so much as He willed, fore-seeing how much they would consume; a thing which marked unspeakable power. The fragments then confirmed the matter, showing both these points; that what had taken place was no illusion, and that these were from the loaves by which the people had been fed. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homily on the Gospel of Saint John. Homily XLII)
But thanks to the multiplication of indispensible material nourishment, Christ desired, twice in his mortal life, to manifest his power to the crowds that followed him. And he employed the miracle in order to direct spirits toward spiritual realities, but not failing to first of all satiate the famished bodies. (John XXIII. Address to the participants of the 10th International FAO Conference, May 3, 1960)
This is an amazing miracle which marks in a way the beginning of a long historical process: the uninterrupted multiplication in the Church of the Bread of new life for the people of every race and culture. This sacramental ministry is entrusted to the Apostles and to their successors. And they, faithful to the divine Master’s command, never cease to break and distribute the Eucharistic bread from generation to generation. (John Paul II. Homily on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, June 22, 2000)