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Delaney CoyneFebruary 22, 2024
A student participates in the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl program. (OSV News photo/Philip Laubner, CRS)

“Do we need as much as we have? How much do we hold on to?”

Desiré Findlay, a trainer and facilitator at Catholic Relief Services, raised these questions in a phone interview with America on the Lenten call to fasting. They are pertinent since one-third of the global food supply is wasted each year, according to the United Nations. Enough food is produced today to feed everyone on the planet, but still, 821 million people around the world are “chronically undernourished.” Hunger is not a problem of scarcity but distribution.

Ms. Findlay says that Lenten fasting can help Catholics be mindful of the fact that “some people are hungry, and it’s not a choice, and they’re not fasting on purpose.” And, from that spark of solidarity, we can take action, offering our prayers—and our money—to those who go without. This principle undergirds the C.R.S. Rice Bowl effort, the flagship program of the relief agency: The Lenten pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should call us to solidarity and charitable action for the poorest among us.

In the early 1970s, as a global famine left much of the world hungry, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant leaders gathered in Allentown, Pa., to discuss ways to respond to the ongoing drought and famine in Africa’s Sahel region that made headlines around the world. From there, they devised Operation Rice Bowl.

According to Allentown’s local paper, The Morning Call, Operation Rice Bowl began as an ecumenical Lenten sacrifice program and was introduced in an interfaith service at Allentown’s First Presbyterian Church in January 1975. Nearly 700 Protestants, Catholics and Jews attended the event. Pittsburgh Catholic reported that in its first year, Operation Rice Bowl raised over $100,000 for international relief agencies. By the next year, it had expanded to dioceses across the United States and Canada and raised over $5,000,000.

So when the 41st International Eucharistic Congress was held in nearby Philadelphia in 1976, and its theme was “The Eucharist and the Hungers of the Human Family,” it was a perfect fit for the burgeoning program from Allenstown. There, Operation Rice Bowl was adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a national program, and in 1977, the bishops voted to make it the official program of C.R.S.

The Eucharistic Congress was a real who’s who of 1970s Catholicism: Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day both spoke at a conference on women and the Eucharist; just two years before being elected Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow gave the homily at the Mass for Freedom and Justice, held in Veterans Stadium; even U.S. President Gerald Ford spoke, calling the Catholic Church “the hospital for the soul, the school for the mind and the safe depository for moral ideals,” although a New York priest anonymously told The New York Times that Mr. Ford was “trying to get the Catholic vote.” The Jesuits’ superior general, Pedro Arrupe, S.J., encouraged Catholics to follow the example set by Operation Rice Bowl: “If this challenge were taken up merely by Roman Catholics and in the United States alone, and if the amount saved only averaged out at $1 per person per week, this would reach the huge sum of over $2.5 billion a year.”

Could they fathom that those “cute little cardboard boxes” would maintain such a presence in Catholic life almost 50 years later?

Though Catholics have not yet achieved Father Arrupe’s goal, the program raised an impressive $7.2 million in 2022. Ms. Findlay also noted that since its inception, C.R.S. Rice Bowl has generated $330 million. C.R.S.’s Rice Bowl fundraising took a hit during 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has steadily risen in years since and is almost back at pre-pandemic levels, according to C.R.S.’s annual reports.

Of the funds raised from C.R.S. Rice Bowl, 75 percent goes to C.R.S.’s international humanitarian programs, whereas the other quarter goes to diocesan efforts to address poverty and hunger at the local level. The international aid goes to long-term programming, Ms. Findlay said, like agriculture initiatives that can empower farmers to access the seeds that they need or help families make nutritious meals. “Those programs don’t always get as much media coverage,” said Ms. Findlay, “but they’re just as important because [they’re] helping people learn how to stand on their own, to actually sustain themselves.”

C.R.S.’s website and Ms. Findlay both say that almost all programming is implemented in partnership with local organizations and is staffed with people who know the customs, needs and cultures of their communities. Last year, the proceeds from C.R.S. Rice Bowl went to 104 projects in 36 different countries, according to Ms. Findlay.

When asked how the program has developed since its inception, Ms. Findlay noted that it’s still a Lenten practice, and the Rice Bowl is still “this cute little cardboard box.” But though the Lenten fundraising approach stayed the same, in recent years, C.R.S. also began publishing “Stories of Hope,” highlighting families impacted by Rice Bowl donations. They also publish Lenten Recipes, meatless recipes that Ms. Findlay said were either given to C.R.S. by its international partners or are commonly made in the countries that they serve. These initiatives can help foster solidarity: “It’s not just Catholics in the United States…. It’s helping them connect with the people we partner with around the world,” Ms. Findlay said.

In his speech at the 1976 Eucharistic Congress, Father Arrupe celebrated Operation Rice Bowl, proposing that “some practice such as this becomes an integral part of our reception of the Eucharist so that whenever we share the Bread of Life round the Table of the Lord we will also share bread for life with the hungry of the world.” Father Arrupe’s vision resonates with the model of the Eucharist as a “stimulus of charity” that Pope Paul VI put forth in his homily closing the Eucharistic Congress.

Now, C.R.S. Rice Bowl operates in every diocese in the United States. “It’s amazing how much it’s grown, especially from that little group who was like, ‘We need to do something,’” Ms. Findlay remarked. Did those Catholic, Jewish and Protestant clergy members ever imagine Operation Rice Bowl would become what it did? Could they fathom that those “cute little cardboard boxes” would maintain such a presence in Catholic life almost 50 years later?

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