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Alicia TorresSeptember 16, 2021
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“She’s a minor celebrity,” one of the sisters joked as she introduced me to the man who would valet our car. It was the feast of St. Francis, 2016, and a benefactor was treating us to steaks at Ditka’s Restaurant. My heart was grateful, yet I often felt as if I were walking around the city with a sign hung around my neck. “Are you the nun who won “Chopped”? people would ask. I was charmed by those encounters, but deeper down an inner friction left me unsettled.

Ultimately my vocation is about a far deeper encounter than a TV show about food can offer, and years later I discovered one of the most profound manifestations of this among children before the Bread of Life himself.

On Nov. 9, 2015, the Food Network premiered “Thanksgiving Soup-er Stars,” a special edition of “Chopped” that highlighted the work of chefs who serve the poor. I was cast to compete and won for my overall creative work with four mystery ingredients—turkey, potatoes, cranberries and green beans. I put together a Mexican appetizer, a Mediterranean entree, a good old-fashioned dessert pancake with cocoa nib sauce and ended up in the winner’s circle.

Winning “Chopped” helped bring much attention to the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, where my community and I serve on Chicago’s West Side. It also deepened my own sense of God’s providence. I entered our community, the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, in 2009 to live a life of prayer centered on daily Mass, eucharistic adoration and serving the poor. I never imagined that very ministry would land me on the front page of The Chicago Tribune.

Yet God’s providence goes far beyond me, the talents he has given me or even the fact that in winning the show’s competition I earned $10,000 to help feed the hungry on the West Side and made connections in the food industry that have led to literally tons of food donations.

Providence extends to all of us. We all have gifts we can share to help end the scandal of hunger in our nation, whether it be with our time, talent or treasure. But the deeper question is this: How do we respond to that hunger of the human heart to be known and loved?

My answer is woven into the fabric of my identity as a religious sister in the church, and I find it revealed to me in a very particular way when I am among the children I teach at a poor, inner-city Catholic school.

How do we respond to that hunger of the human heart to be known and loved?

The 2020-21 school year posed unique challenges because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Knowing things would remain uncertain for the students throughout the year, I wanted to offer something that would be grounding for the children. I chose to lead the entire school, kindergartners through 8th grade (both in-person and online students), in a modified version of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. The main point of this retreat, which has been offered since the 16th century, is simple: to come to know, love and serve Jesus by letting Jesus know, love and serve us.

As we made our adventure through the Spiritual Exercises, I saw the children’s love and devotion for Jesus deepen. I was especially touched by the humble assent of the youngest children to the mystery of the Eucharist. They were captivated by the Last Supper and Jesus’ passion and death, and understood that he did it “for me.” Throughout the retreat, they kept going back to the Eucharist. In some of their drawings, they would even write “Jesus” in the host to remember it is really he.

As I saw their love for the Eucharist kindled, I had a growing desire to share eucharistic adoration with them. Many years ago I truly met Jesus for the first time in adoration. In the daily holy hours that I have made for over a decade, I have come to experience a deep friendship with him that has become my spiritual lifeblood.

While driving to Mass in May of this year, the thought flashed across my mind: virtual adoration. An hour later I opened my laptop and found adoration live-streaming from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Singapore. At school that morning, I told our 5-year-olds that we were going to do something very special: We were going to spend time with Jesus in adoration.

I told our 5-year-olds that we were going to do something very special: We were going to spend time with Jesus in adoration.

I showed them a map of the world, and we discovered it would take us at least a whole day by airplane to get to Singapore! Through technology, we could join the people in that cathedral so far away who were spending special, quiet time with Jesus. I told the children they could sit or kneel; but, most important, they should be very still inside, talk to Jesus from their own hearts and let him speak to them.

I could feel the humidity of grace heavy in the air as the children went down on both knees, looking up at Jesus, truly present. It was as if there were only one heartbeat in the classroom—or rather, that all of our hearts were beating in union with Jesus’ own heart. It was like I was living in the Acts of the Apostles, where “the community of believers were of one mind and heart.” I felt as if I were no longer a teacher among students, but a disciple among disciples.

We remained silent for five minutes, many children bowing their heads, their little bodies so still. One classmate struggled with the stillness and quiet. But later he drew a beautiful picture of the Eucharist revealing that he, too, had been very aware of Jesus in his own heart. In first grade, after we finished, one of the boys placed his hands over his heart as he exclaimed, “My heart was on fire!” Many children said they wanted to tell Jesus, “I love you.”

A few weeks later, during our final meditation, the children drew what they wanted to give to God. One of the girls showed me her drawing. “It is the Eucharist,” she said with a big smile. She wanted to give to God the greatest treasure she knew. Another child explained her drawing to me: “I am giving Jesus the Eucharist and my heart.”

Many children said they wanted to tell Jesus, “I love you.”

A mother of several small children once told me that she viewed her home as a monastery, where Jesus invited her to pray with her children every day. In a kindergarten classroom in late April, in the midst of a global pandemic, I discovered the depths of what she meant. When I sensed my religious call many years ago, I thought I was giving up the gift of having children. But Jesus has shared many, many children with me as a religious sister, and our monastery this year was our classroom. Gathered there as a little community of believers around the Eucharist, a deeper dimension of my identity was revealed to me.

I am not alone in my desire to know, love and serve Jesus. By sharing the treasure of the Eucharist with these little ones, I have discovered a wealth far beyond a $10,000 prize and minor celebrity status. I have discovered that the kingdom of heaven truly belongs to little children, and how blessed am I to find my place among them!

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