Traditionally we prepare for Easter by works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We have never made much of that third element; but Pope Francis has been highlighting the importance of caring for the poor. That leads me to resolve to finish off lent by doing something noteworthy in helping those in need. If you decide on some special endeavor, be sure to be quiet about it: not letting your right hand know about the help you are extending with your left hand.
Yesterday I came across a letter I wrote from my parish in Korea in 1958. It described the unusual way America helped people in Korea who were starving after their war.
Our Catholic Relief Service had been running soup kitchens in five South Korean cities, and the favorite food we served was large dishes of noodles made from American surplice flour. An amazing boost in that program came along in 1958, and an Irish friend of mine, Father Neil Boyle, was responsible for making that program a hundred times large than what it had been.
An American monsignor who directed our Catholic Relief program in Korea was called home, and Father Neil was appointed to fill in for a month. On his first day on the job the Korean office manager told Neil that this was the final day for wiring Washington for their request for surplice flour. Neil was a timid man, and he tried putting off the request, but the manager said if they didn’t put their order in that day they would need t close down all the soup kitchens.
Reluctantly, Neil gave in to requesting the American Government to give them what they had given before. The manager said that it had been 200.000 tons, while actually it had been 200,000 pounds; but Neil let the 200,000 tons request go through.
Neil got back to our house, where the other priests pointed out that he had ordered a hundred times more than before, so Neil rushed down to the International telegraph people, telling Washington to cancel the order. However, his telegram was too late. The Eisenhower Administration had been getting flack for spending ten million a month to store surplice flour, so they were happy to unload it on Korea. They went on to take out of mothballs a fleet of old Victory transport ships.
The flour was distributed between all of Korea’s Catholic parishes. The 595 hundred pound bag I got each month filled my rectory; and rather than letting workmen dipped into it, I used my meager cash to pay them to distribute the flour between the five townships in my parish.
There was a senator from Indiana who complained about our pouring our flour “down foreign rat holes,” but I loved what we were doing.
In one of our villages we had a man with five not-too-beautiful daughters. We all joked about that man’s grim facial expressions. One day he showed up all smiles. They had cooked their last scraps of food, and they were getting ready to die together, when my man showed up with seven pounds of flour for him and for each of his daughters. They had a great feast of noodles, and they had come in to thank America through me.