From Hamburger to Eucharist

Our victory is certain


From hamburger to Eucharist: the contrast in sacramental meaning was the theme of the December 2002 "Pope Paul VI Memorial Lecture" organised and delivered by the former Master of the Dominicans. The edited extracts were published in the Tablet magazine.

FORTY years ago, the Second Vatican Council was just beginning. On 6 December 1962, Cardinal Lercaro startled the council by talking of "The Church of the poor". On this same day Yves Congar noted in his diary that Christ's presence in the poor must be made the basis of the whole work of the council. We were on the edge of that extraordinary renewal of hope, summed up the opening words of the council document published three years later, Gaudium et Spes, Joy and Hope. This was the context of Cafod's birth in 1962. It now has a staff of 200, and last year raised 26m.

Today there are still reasons for hope. The Soviet empire has fallen. Apartheid has crumbled. Some countries, such as China, are much wealthier. But poverty has increased even more. Forty years ago we could never have imagined the present crucifixion of most of sub-Saharan Africa: Aids, malaria, starvation, civil war, genocide, endemic violence. And we seem to be losing the political will to face these problems. Gaudium et Spes. Forty years later we may be more inclined to remember the words that follow, "the grief and anguish of the people of our time".

This is the context in which we celebrate the fortieth birthday of Cafod. What difference can its mission make in the face of economic forces of such incredible strength? What effect can even millions of pounds' worth of aid make when trillions of pounds are circulating every day around the globe in search of a quick profit? We all know that for every pound of aid that goes to any so-called developing country, vastly more is paid back to us. Are these programmes any more than ways of soothing our consciences? Do they achieve anything? As one project worker in Rajasthan said, "Why help trees to grow if the forest is consumed by fire?" Or as the woman in a cartoon said when she saw starving children on the television: "This is awful. Pour me another gin and tonic."

But Cafod's mission embodies a strength that is greater than that of all the economic forces that sometimes appear to work for inequality. This is partly because of what is achieved materially by Cafod and its partners. Water flows and people are fed. But Cafod's works are most powerful at a deeper level, through what they mean and say. For us as Christians, the real model of what it means to make and change the world is our God who speaks a word. Cafod shares in speaking that powerful word of God.

If you really wish to understand why Cafod's works bring hope, then you must look not only at what they do, but what they say. Human beings are made for meaning, and it is the gift of meaning that most deeply changes us.

In John's gospel Jesus performs a number of miracles. I shall focus on one particular sign of Jesus, which is the healing of the man born blind. The story describes a man "whose neighbours" saw him as a beggar. But Jesus never relates to him as a beggar and frees him from dependency. This is typical of the New Testament, which never treats people as beggars. When the lame man outside the Temple asks for alms, Peter says to him, "Look at us ... I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk" (Acts 3:6). When Cafod took part earlier this year in the Southern Africa Appeal, some people proposed the usual sort of poster, of an emaciated child begging for food. But Cafod produced a poster that showed a woman striding forward with a child on her back. She is upright, dignified and strong. She is going somewhere. And is it on purpose that she is not shown coming towards us, as a beggar might, but going her own way? We may walk with her if we wish, but we do not tell her where to go.

The story of the man born blind shows Jesus completing God's creation of humanity. The man born blind was incomplete, half-made. Creation is not something that God did at the beginning, and which is over. It is the work of Jesus and our work, too. The mission of Cafod, and indeed all human striving after a just world, is more than bandaging the wounds of humanity. It is the completion of God's fashioning of a just world.

We change the world by building dams, constructing power stations, digging wells and producing goods. These are indeed the raw materials of human development. They are necessary, but not enough. All profound transformation occurs at the level of human meaning.

Human beings live and die by signs. The terrorists of 11 September understood this well. Thousands of people died, and tens of thousands were bereaved. But it was planned and executed as a symbolic event, which was far more destructive. The symbols of global travelling, jet planes, slammed into those icons of western economic and military power, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Those awful deeds spoke! All of us will be for ever marked by the images of that day.

Think of that student in Tiananmen Square, fragile and vulnerable in front of the tank, so easily crushed and yet so strong! That is a symbolic event which changed the world. Think of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was far more than the demolition of an obstacle.

Cafod's projects are effective. No one would give them money to support the digging of wells if water never came out. But these programmes speak; they mean something, and it is thus that they are a sharing in God's creation of the world, and the bringing in of the Kingdom. They are sacramental.

Symbols make us and destroy us. In April I was in Cairo, and the prior took me to visit part of the city that is not often seen by tourists, Mukatam, the town of the rubbish collectors. It is the dirtiest, smelliest place I have ever seen, and 500,000 people live here, mostly Christians. They go out each morning on their little donkey carts to collect the rubbish and bring it back to their quarter, and to sort through it to see if anything can be recycled. On the cliffs behind the city, a Polish artist has painted vast images of Christ in glory: transfigured, resurrected and ascended into heaven. When they come back home they face these images of glory that tower over them. Then they remember that they are not ultimately the citizens of Mukatam but of the Kingdom, and they lift up their heads.

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 Gutierrez 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"

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".

Perhaps the solidarity of the Kingdom can be expressed now in terms of liberation from the wrong sorts of connectedness. We all are caught up in networks of violence which are sustained by the export of arms and the import of drugs and prostitutes, and by terrorism. There is even the violence of the market itself. On 11 September we could see explode in our midst the latent violence that circulates in our global community. Part of the mission of Cafod is to co-operate in the liberation of people from this violent "we", in preparation for that peaceful communion which is the Kingdom.

We need signs of the Kingdom. Think of the difference between eating a hamburger and celebrating the Eucharist. Sociologists speak of the "sacramental consumption" of a McDonald's hamburger as the sign of one's belonging to the global world of consumers. As Peter Berger wrote, "To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a hamburger is just a hamburger. But in other cases, the consumption of a hamburger, especially when it takes place under the golden icon of a McDonald's restaurant, is the visible sign of the real or imagined participation in global modernity."

CONTRAST this hamburger with a Eucharist celebrated with a Hutu and a Tutsi Dominican brother in Burundi in the midst of the civil war. This is a meal which is sacramental, but in another sense. It is a communion that is signified by the sharing of what is given, not owned. It is not about joining the community of the rich and the powerful. It points to the transformation of all human relationships.

Some development programmes risk being sacramental only in the McDonald's sense, scattering fancy Western equipment, cars and computers and other signs of modernity. But Cafod's stress on partnership, on the dignity and the wisdom of their partners overseas, points to the Kingdom and to the completion of God's creation of humanity. They express our belief that ultimately we are one, and these people are part of who we are called to be.

Just before he was executed by the Nazis, that great Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sent a last message to his friend, George Bell, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester: "Tell him from me this is the end but also the beginning... Victory is certain." Every work of Cafod is sacramental of that victory: every little triumph for human dignity, every small liberation of women. Every time a child soldier is freed from the army, every time famine is averted, every time the voiceless find a voice, then we see a sign of hope. All these small victories express our hope that "our victory is certain". God's word has been spoken; it will be accomplished.



TIMOTHY RADCLIFFE - a Dominican born in London in 1945. Ordained to priesthood in 1971. Studied in Oxford and Paris. A lecturer of the New Testament in the University of London for many years. 1993-2002 - Master General of the Dominican Order.


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