Feasts of the Saints: The Magical Multiplication of Food at Christmas

Did a Jesuit priest really recreate the Feeding of the Five Thousand in a Mexican rubbish dump on Christmas Day 1972? Or are such “Miracles of Abundance” better understood as providing the faithful with food for thought in purely symbolic terms?

Cooking a Christmas meal for a large number of people can be a stressful occasion—especially if you don’t have enough food to go around for everyone. Just such a problem once faced a Texas-based Jesuit priest and charismatic prayer leader named Rick Thomas, who, on Christmas Day 1972, headed south of the border to Juarez in Mexico to try feeding some of the poor who lived on a municipal dump there, acting as professional scavengers amongst the trash.

Aiming to give their Christmas dinner a true Mexican taste, Fr. Thomas and his assistants packed not only typical festive fare like ham, cakes, pies, fruit, and candy for the kids, but also burritos, tacos, and tamales—enough to feed perhaps 150 people. Yet, when they arrived in the dump, which was filled with smoke from mounds and hills of garbage which spontaneously caught fire on a regular basis, like some new circle of junk-based Hell that had somehow gone uncatalogued by Dante, there was an unexpected problem. Fr. Thomas’ group thought there was only one faction of workers living in the rubbish tip, but there were two, meaning they now had to feed over 300 people, twice the original imagined number. 

What should the charity workers do? Just pray to God, and make the best of it. Laying a plank across two oil drums, they began doling out their wares. Somehow, everyone present ended up with a full sandwich, taco, or burrito. Every child took some candy. Then, they lined up again to get some more. Nothing actually ran out. Even the single Christmas ham enjoyed an abnormal longevity, some meat remaining no matter how much it was sliced. Some dump dwellers took away doggy bags to eat later. When it was time to pack up, Fr. Thomas and company found that, somehow, they still had enough food left over to donate to several separate orphanages.

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It seemed their food had miraculously multiplied like bacteria in a petri dish, a wonder now known as “The Christmas Miracle” or “Miracle of Juarez.” There is abundant, direct, firsthand witness testimony that this event actually occurred: you can see so yourself in a short documentary film available here. Impressed, a Christian community subsequently grew up hungry for further miracles within the dump, involving such strange phenomena as cartons of milk which never ran out.

It all makes for a charming Christmas story: But can it really be true?

The obvious biblical model is Jesus’ rather more famous Feeding of the Five Thousand, the only one of Christ’s miracles recorded in all four Gospels (although other miraculous multiplications are also found elsewhere in the Bible). Many theologians of a certain bent today interpret the disciples’ accounts in a nonliteral fashion, as a form of “spiritual feeding,” a metaphor for how God will always provide for his faithful children, or even an allegory for the annual multiplication of the harvest. 

Others say the crowd already had more than enough bread to feed everyone present selfishly concealed away within their robes; Jesus just persuaded them to pull it out and share. And yet, the Gospels specifically present this as no mere verbal parable, like that of the mustard seed, but as a literal physical event, witnessed by the disciples themselves—i.e., an actual, full-blown miracle.

Theologically, such marvels are known as “Miracles of Abundance.” Pope Benedict XIV, in his comprehensive guide to the kinds of miracle workings that should be considered potential evidence in favor of candidates for sainthood, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et de Beatorum Canonizatione, gives a whole chapter over to details of such things.  

Jesus Christ and Fr. Rick Thomas are hardly the only Christian figures to have accumulated such stories. Some, of course, are nothing but legends invented long after the fact. St. Dominic (1170-1221), for example, was said to have commended two of his friars who gave away all their Order’s bread to some beggars in the street one day for their sense of charity, even though this meant the entire friary now had nothing left to eat. St. Dominic had all his men sit down at their empty plates in the refectory anyway and pray for mercy, whereupon two angels in human form appeared and distributed each brother an entire full loaf of bread to call his own—or so say later chroniclers. 

Other such stories are quite appealingly absurd, such as that of Blessed Solanus Casey (1870-1957), a Detroit-based Capuchin friar and noted eccentric, who is said to have once accepted a pair of ice creams and then absentmindedly placed them inside his desk on a hot summer day, where they should really have melted. When he pulled them out to share with a visitor later, however, not only were they still perfectly well-frozen, they were also now three in number, as if the treats had surreptitiously mated and had a little baby cone behind closed doors!  

Again, perhaps this is just another myth, intended to indicate both Blessed Solanus’ unconventional ways and his saintliness. Other stories, though, like those surrounding St. John Bosco (1815-88), who is supposed to have miraculously multiplied both bread and chestnuts on several separate occasions, almost as a matter of mundane routine, are actively testified to by several named firsthand witnesses, just as with Fr. Thomas’ wonder-working at Juarez.

In his posthumously published 1952 book The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, the English Jesuit Fr. Herbert Thurston (1856-1939), a noted expert on both the miraculous and the occult, devotes an interesting chapter toward Miracles of Abundance. Perhaps the most fascinating instance he cites is that of Fr. Angiolo Paoli (1642-1720), who was said not only to be able to pluck fruits such as strawberries out of thin air when they were out of season but, also, to hand around cups of wine which never ran dry, no matter how many lips took a sip. Again, however, this was all so very long ago and, as such, is easily dismissed by skeptics.

Do such things still happen today, then, or are they all purely a thing of the past? In 2018, an exciting claim of a Miracle of Abundance was posted on Facebook from a Protestant missionary in Africa named Dr. Heidi Baker, founder of the charity Iris Global. She claimed that, after she had taught local poor children of the need to pray for food, God had repeatedly begun materializing stores of bread and chicken for them. One day, as a “rare treat,” the missionary started handing them free home-baked cookies from a bag (Dr. Baker’s surname evidently being a fine example of nominative determinism). 

The cookies, limited in number, proved popular, so they were not expected to last long—and yet, according to Dr. Baker, they lasted “for weeks and weeks” as “God filled that bag over and over again!” Here is her post in full:

What to make of such an account? It surely cannot simply be passed off as a mistake, a miscounting, or a misinterpretation. There are only two real options I can see available: either Dr. Baker is lying, or this really happened. 

The most widely publicized recent case of multiplied food comes from Italy, where a controversial self-claimed Catholic visionary and stigmatic, 53-year-old Gisella Cardia, has boasted of experiencing regular monthly visitations from the Virgin Mary in a hilltop field in the small town of Trevignano Romano near Rome, where alleged Fatima-style “Miracles of the Sun” have been filmed. According to Cardia, the Marian apparitions began after she brought home a statuette of the Virgin from a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in Bosnia, where Mary famously spoke to some children in 1981. 

Cardia, who professes to be “pregnant” with the Holy Spirit, says the Virgin has been feeding her apocalyptic predictions for several years now, including asking her followers to pray in 2019 for intercession against the advent of a deadly new airborne disease coming from China: meaning Mary apparently forecast the coming of Covid, which is rather more than the WHO did. 

Besides more usual forms of sweet-smelling stigmata, Cardia also says words have spontaneously appeared on her own skin written in blood, saying things like “Maria Santissima” (“Mary most Holy”), along with poltergeist-type phenomena such as images of crosses and Aramaic writing manifesting on walls around her home. Her statue of Mary has also begun weeping red tears, albeit one Italian private investigator reportedly had it analyzed, finding it to be pig’s blood; it is since disputed whether he actually took any sample at all. As Cardia has a previous conviction for the (possibly inadvertent) crime of “fraudulent bankruptcy,” many critics have claimed she is just a con-woman in search of donations from the duped faithful—you can see an account of the various confusing claims and counterclaims here and here.   

Although some local priests believe and support Gisella’s narrative, the overall approach of the Church has been cautious or skeptical. Pope Francis himself seems to have warned against taking Cardia at face value, albeit not by specific name, and a special Vatican commission has now been established to examine reported Marian apparitions like hers. Matters are not helped, however, by the distinctly comic nature of some of Cardia’s claims around her own alleged Miracles of Abundance, specifically the following, which she recounted to an Italian YouTube broadcaster: “It was a pizza for four and 25 of us ate from it. It never got any smaller. We were shocked!”

Appropriate miracle food indeed for an Italian: Cardia also professes to have miraculously mass-produced gnocchi pasta and rabbit meat for visiting priests and schoolchildren. Such tales provide easy food for secular mockery: The Times of London dubbed the local Marian apparition “The Madonna of the Margheritas” (Times, 5 May 2023, p.37—this punning headline has since been removed from the online version).

Miracles of Abundance do not only come from Christianity, of course. Age-old legends of magical cornucopias (horns of plenty) and inexhaustible fairy cups, plus the similarly enchanted Sangraal of Arthurian myth, also speak to the durable imaginative appeal of such tales, whilst they are known of in Islam too. Some such stories are even wholly secular in nature. Here is a genuine reader’s letter which appeared in the pages of an English newspaper in 1975:

Maybe the puzzled Tidmarshes couldn’t understand it, but I’m sure Fr. Rick Thomas could.

Author

  • Steven Tucker

    Steven Tucker is a U.K.-based writer whose work has appeared online and in print worldwide. His latest book, Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science, examines the similarities between the ideologically corrupted sciences of the Soviets and Nazis and the equally ideologically corrupted woke sciences of today. He formerly taught in an English Catholic high school.

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