The Man Born Blind

(This is Neil.) The Gospel reading for this Sunday is John 9:1-41 (I heard it proclaimed during the Vigil Mass tonight). When meditating on this chapter, my mind usually drifts back at least once to a lecture delivered by Fr Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former Master-General of the Dominican order, in 2002. Fr Radcliffe suggests that part of the story is that the man born blind “ceases to be the object of conversation and becomes a subject.” The poor are not simply “objects of charity,” but “subjects whom we address and who address us.” Furthermore, the man born blind eventually utters a “we” – “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshipper of God, and does his will, God listens to him” – reminding us of the sort of un-Pharisaic communion to which God calls us, an “unimaginable solidarity that is not against anyone.”

The website for CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) is here; Caritas is here. Fr Radcliffe references them both.

Here, then, is Fr Radcliffe on John 9:

At the beginning of the story of the blind man, the disciples talk about him, but they do not speak to him. Only Jesus does. Then when he is cured the neighbours talk about him, but they say nothing to him until he speaks out and says, “I am the man.” Then he is taken to the Pharisees and again they begin by talking about him rather than to him. The Pharisees summon his parents, but they refuse to talk about him. They say, “He is of age; he will speak for himself.” And he does so, ever more strongly, culminating in his confession of faith: “Lord, I believe.”

It is the story of a man finding his own voice. He ceases to be the object of conversation and becomes a subject. Indeed it is his story. The first words he speaks, “I am the man”, are even more significant than they appear in English. He actually says in Greek “Ego eimi”, “I am”. He comes to be someone who can say “I am” in his own right. Now these words are often used in John’s gospel to echo God’s own name at the beginning of the story of the Exodus. God appears to Moses in the wilderness in a burning bush and proclaims his name, “I am who I am”. As God’s children, we can speak with God and also say “I am”.

Cafod’s programmes and projects bear hope above all because they serve the emergence of their partners as people in their own right, who have a voice, and who can say “I am”. They are not the objects of charity, but subjects whom we address and who address us. The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez speaks of “the irruption of the poor”. They irrupt into the centre of the stage. This requires of us that we vacate that centre, that we are self-effacing, yielding the space.

The meaning of any project is not primarily the meaning that we give it. It is the meaning it has for our partners in the developing world. Once Caritas sponsored a project in India for the digging of wells. When the pump on one well broke down, the villagers did not repair it, although this could easily have been done. When asked why not, they said, “It is your well, it is not ours. How could we repair it, then?” They had never owned that well.

The blind man takes a time to say “I”; at the end of the story, he is able to say “we”. The Pharisees say “we”. It is the “we” of the religious authorities, who hold the centre of the stage and shut out people like himself. “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner” (Jn 9:24). But this is a “we” that is challenged by the blind man. He grows in confidence and boldly asserts a new “we”, with its own claim to authority. He says “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshipper of God, and does his will, God listens to him” (v. 31).

God’s creation of humanity is not ultimately the production of individuals. God brings to birth a community in which we can all say “we” and so flourish humanly. This is the Kingdom. It is only when we can say “we” that we shall understand what it means for any of us to say “I am”. The deepest meaning of the projects and programmes of Cafod is in serving the emergence of this community in which, like the man born blind, we can discover who we are. Apart from each other, we are incomplete.

This new communion for which we labour is defined by more than mere geographical extension. It is a belonging together that is usually called “solidarity”. Pope John Paul II said, “The more globalised the market becomes, the more we must counterbalance it with a culture of solidarity that gives priority to the needs of the most vulnerable.”

“Solidarity” is a word whose roots lie in early-nineteenth-century France. It meant the solidarity of the French against such enemies as the English. We Christians aspire to an unimaginable solidarity that is not against anyone. It is not based on exclusion, of an “us” against “them”, like the “us” of the Pharisees which shuts out the man born blind. The Kingdom is solidarity without exclusion, offering us an identity beyond our present understanding. Until the Kingdom, we are incomplete people. It is not only the poor, the powerless and the voiceless who lack full identity. We do, too, until we are one with them. To accept to be called a Catholic is to accept identification kath’ holon, according to the whole, the universal communion of the Kingdom. It is only in the “we” of the Kingdom that we shall each know what it means to say “I am”.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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