“Surely he could have sold it and given money to the soup kitchen instead,” was my first involuntary reaction when I saw this oddball story in the Catholic News Service listings:
VATICAN CITY (CNS)—Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, some of Rome’s poor will enjoy a gourmet meal flavored with shavings of a precious white truffle weighing more than two pounds, reported Caritas Rome, the diocesan Catholic charity.
Pope Benedict received the truffle at his general audience Nov. 17 and re-gifted it to the John Paul II soup kitchen in Rome….The chefs of Caritas will use the white truffle— which could sell for between $1,600 and $2,800—in the rice, pasta and meat dishes to be served Nov. 30 at the John Paul II soup kitchen, Caritas reported. (The rest of the story is here.)
Then I realized I sounded like Judas at the Last Supper. And like tens of thousands of stern utilitarians down through the ages. We seem to have a deeply held belief that if you’re wealthy you are entitled to the most exotic food, transportation, gadgets and clothing. But if you’re poor, you need to be satisfied with nothing but nourishing soup and bread, plain clothes and barely adequate shelter.
Rome—and indeed all of Italy—is renowned for its cooking. I’ve been reading Italian cookbooks lately and many of the writers sing the praises of truffles, both the white and the more rare black truffles. I haven’t had the courage to try them yet. They reputedly have a rich, earthy flavor, but they look, in fact, like what they are: wrinkled bits of fungus dug out of the earth in a few regions of the world.
But long before and after they were discovered by the gourmets and gourmands of haute cuisine, truffles were favored by pigs, whose sensitive noses sniff them out underground and root them up for a delicate piggy feast.
One of the places black truffles are found is the Umbria region, home to Francis of Assisi. And so we come back to beggars and truffles and the church. Francis lived simply himself, but rejoiced in all of creation, and would have been happy to give the poor a rich banquet.
I think of Jesus turning water into the best wine at the end of a wedding feast, when the guests wouldn’t have noticed the difference. I think of the prodigal son, willing to share the husks fed to the pigs and then returning home to the finest veal his father could provide—and of his disapproving elder brother. I think about the gratuitous sensuous beauty God offers day and night, creating a world filled with colors and scents, flavors and textures.
Among the people eating their donated meal at the John Paul II soup kitchen in Rome, there might be someone who recalls the taste of truffles from a more fortunate time of life and give thanks to God for both the experience and the memory—and perhaps begin the arduous journey back to a better life. There might be someone who will one day become a celebrated chef because of the opportunity to experience a gourmet meal in a homeless shelter, searching for new ways to combine unusual and unexpected ingredients into a surprising taste sensation.
Feeding the body is essential, but so is feeding the soul. God’s grace can work through the oddest of circumstances. Who are we to limit that?