Urgent action to address the global food crisis and a life-affirming discipline of fasting were the twin agenda of a Vatican gathering to focus on the meaning of Lent this week.
Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) told the gathering that "one in six people on earth" suffers hunger. "But this is not a problem of food availability. It is a problem of distribution - and of greed, discrimination, wars and other tragedies."
"Today, a child dies every six seconds from hunger. The question is: Is there anything that can be done to alleviate the humiliation, pain and injustice of hunger? Are there solutions that help people break the hunger trap for themselves, once and for all? The answer is overwhelmingly 'yes'. We have the tools and technology to make this happen, and we have seen it happen in many places around the world".
The WFP director mentioned the examples of Darfur, "where the world has prevented - for less than fifty cents a day per person - mass starvation", and of Senegal where "the most aggressive increase in global food prices in recorded history ... left an estimated forty percent of rural households in danger of hunger and malnutrition". To contrast this, "last year the WFP bought over one billion dollars in food directly from the developing world for its programmes, helping break the cycle of poverty at its root".
The WFP's school feeding programmes increase school enrolment by twenty-eight percent for girls, and twenty-two percent for boys, serving as an effective and affordable way to provide education and nutrition, while empowering women and girls", as happens, for example, in the programme being implemented in Afghanistan.
The World Food Programme works with "charities and NGOs around the world to ensure that we tailor our programmes to local needs. Catholic charities are key partners for the WFP. For example, WFP works with local Caritas in the dioceses of nearly forty countries, in food-for-work, health and education programmes. We also work with Catholic Relief Services, where we collaborate in fifteen countries", Ms Sheeran concluded.
In his remarks Cardinal Cordes noted how "year after year the Pope's words remind us of our duty to open our hearts and hands to those in need. ... Aid - if it is not to sink to the level of an ideology or a purely mental exercise - must always be a concrete action, it must engage directly with situations of poverty".
The Lent period, preceding Easter, is derived from the Gospel story of Jesus' sojourn in the desert, and his resistance to temptations of power, wealth and spiritual corruption.
In this context, the cardinal mentioned his own recent trip to one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Manila, Philippines, and his call to bishops of that country "not simply to surrender before the poverty of [humankind]; as much as we can we must seek to remedy it. ... This realistic viewpoint enables us to consider the pontifical document in the broader horizon of faith and its relationship with modern lifestyles."
In an age characterised by a concern for wellbeing and physical health, "the Lenten Message seems to contradict social trends", said Cardinal Cordes, yet "the body can become a tyrant" and "the desire for wellbeing and pleasure can reduce freedom and become unmanageable by the human will".
"Fasting aims to make a clean break in our lives. ... It transcends the earthly dimension and pursues an objective that is beyond this world", which in other religions such as Buddhism or Islam may be "entry into Nirvana or obedience towards Allah, Lord of heaven and earth."
However he added that fasting in other traditions cannot simply be identified with Christian fasts" because for some outlooks "fasting is a struggle against the material world's power over [humankind]. It is influenced by a dualistic philosophy. Fasting, hence, has negative connotations: it is a way of freeing ourselves from the burden that created things have upon us. However this risks isolating man and closing him in upon himself. For Christians, on the other hand, mystical desire is never a descent into oneself, but a descent into the profundity of faith, where one meets God".
Lent fasting is about affirming the flesh that God assumed in Christ, he emphasised. It is about encounter with God in and through the material world, and also the transformation of that world.