“The interpretation [of St. Augustine] that Bartimaeus was a man who had fallen from a condition of ‘great prosperity’ causes us to think. It invites us to reflect on the fact that our lives contain precious riches that we can lose, and I am not speaking of material riches here.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, October 28, 2012.
The homilies of the Pope Benedict XVI are always distinguished by the many levels at which he addresses us. This pope is a teacher; he is a scholar. He always tells us the context of what he is talking about. He speaks on the matter at hand, usually the text in the Mass he is celebrating. For the Mass at the end of the Synod, which is the Mass of the Thirtieth Sunday of the year, the text of the Gospel concerns one Bartimaeus, a blind man whom Christ encounters outside of Jericho.
In the structure of Mark’s Gospel, Benedict tells us, this curing of Bartimaeus’ blindness occurs at an important point. “The whole of Mark’s Gospel is a journey of faith, which develops gradually under Jesus tutelage.” In one sentence, we are given the whole scope of this particular Gospel. The first “actors” on this journey are the apostles themselves. Evidently, they are being taught something that they may not be aware of. The journey or pilgrimage is to the Holy City. Jesus is now going there. He knows what is in store for Him. He is with some disciples and many people.
These people will be the ones who later “recognize” Him as the Messiah as He rides into the Holy City when He arrives there. Bartimaeus is begging by the side of the road. He is blind. The healing of Bartimaeus is the “last miraculous healing before Jesus enters His passion.” Here Benedict tells us it is not an “accident” that the man is blind. “We know from other texts that the state of blindness has great significance in the Gospels. It represents man who needs God’s light, the light of faith, if he is to know reality truly and to walk the path of life.” God is light. Darkness is to lack light, not to know, to disbelieve. That is a remarkable sentence. If we are to know “reality,” if we are to know what is, we need, in addition to our minds (but not apart from them), faith, trust in the Word, in the Light. It looks like the man who does not have faith does not know reality. We will remain blind without the light of faith, even if we see.
Bartimaeus is a model. “He represents the man who has lost the light and knows it.” Others lose the light and refuse to acknowledge it. This sentence foreshadows the context of the Synod on the new evangelization. It is directed precisely at those who once had the faith and seem to have lost it. The Church has realized that its own mission is hindered precisely by the vast numbers of Catholics in the “developed” world who have lost or do not practice their faith. They have, as it were, blinded themselves.
Bartimaeus, in the Gospel account, simply says: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” When Christ asks him what he wants, he replies: “Lord, that I may see.” What are we to make of this response? “Bartimaeus represents man aware of his pain and crying out to the Lord, confident of being healed.” Benedict notes that this plea, “Lord, that I may see,” like the publican’s, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner,” has become a part of the Church’s own prayer. Bartimaeus teaches us that our path is to follow Jesus on our journey. We too pray that we may see.
St. Augustine, whom Benedict habitually cites (partly because Augustine commented wisely on almost everything) suggests that Bartimaeus was a man who once was rich but had lost his riches. He is now wretched because of his blindness. His cure restored his fame and riches in another way. Benedict says: “This interpretation, that Bartimaeus was a man who had fallen from a condition of ‘great prosperity,’ causes us to think.” Think about what? Many were “evangelized long ago.” The light of faith has “grown dim and people have drifted away from God, no longer considering him relevant for their lives.” Who else could the pope be talking of but the western European Catholics?
These people have lost their real riches. “They are the many in need of the new evangelization, that is, a new encounter with Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.” The pope never talks of abstractions here. The encounter is not with ideas, but with the Son of God, nothing less. This biblical passage speaks to us as we grapple with the need to proclaim Christ anew in places where the light of faith has been weakened, in places where the fire of God is more like smoldering cinders, crying out to be stirred up.” This evangelization applies to the “whole Church, even to “ordinary pastoral ministry”; the sacramental journey is where we encounter the Lord’s call to holiness, addressed to all Christians.” The examples of the saints are the main “protagonists” of this new evangelization.
The Church is also concerned with “the message of salvation to those who do not yet know Christ.” The pope adds a principle that is difficult to carry out in many political jurisdictions: “All people have a right to know Jesus Christ and his Gospel; and all Christians…have the corresponding duty to proclaim the Good News.” The Church is also concerned with “the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of baptism.” The Church seeks those who “have drifted away or are seeking the meaning of life, happiness, and, ultimately, God.” We are, thus, to “put away all blindness to the truth….” We seek those who have lost their faith. This is a vast number. This loss of faith has made the evangelization of other much more difficult, both because of loss of manpower and loss of example and tradition. The blind man at Jericho has become the symbol of those who were once blind but now see. The pope suggests that our world is now full of those who are blind but who do not choose to see. The blind man tells us that they do not have to choose this way.