“By Mercy-ing and by Choosing Him”: Pope Francis and the Feast of St. Matthew

Pope Francis has made no secret of his affinity for the calling of St. Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13). His papal motto is from a homily on the call of Matthew, and it was on the Feast of St. Matthew, sixty years ago today, that Francis had a religious experience that led him to the priesthood:

[O]n the Feast of St Matthew in 1953, the young Jorge Bergoglio experienced, at the age of 17, in a very special way, the loving presence of God in his life. Following confession, he felt his heart touched and he sensed the descent of the Mercy of God, who with a gaze of tender love, called him to religious life, following the example of St Ignatius of Loyola.

Pope Francis opened up about this, in one of the most self-revelatory parts of his recent interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., explaining how he sees himself (“a sinner”), and why he chose his particular papal motto (Miserando atque Eligendo, “By Mercy-ing and by Choosing Him”):

Caravaggio,
The Calling of St. Matthew (detail) (1600)

I ask Pope Francis point-blank: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

The pope continues to reflect and concentrate, as if he did not expect this question, as if he were forced to reflect further. “Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” And he repeats: “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.” 

The motto is taken from the Homilies of Bede the Venerable, who writes in his comments on the Gospel story of the calling of Matthew: “Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The pope adds: “I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [“mercy-ing”]. 

Pope Francis continues his reflection and says, jumping to another topic: “I do not know Rome well. I know a few things. These include the Basilica of St. Mary Major; I always used to go there. I know St. Mary Major, St. Peter’s…but when I had to come to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighbourhood of] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio.

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.”

Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (detail) (1600)

There’s much to be said about this answer. First, the humility of Pope Francis’ answer apparently shocked a lot of people. For example, Kevin Emmert at Christianity Today (the Evangelical magazine and website) reacted like this:

Spadaro asks Pope Francis point-blank, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The pope’s answer is shocking: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. … I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.” It is striking that the pope would declare himself a “sinner,” since the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that baptism erases original sin and turns humans back toward God. However, the catechism also teaches that the inclination toward sin and evil persists, but this is distinguished as concupiscence and not sin in the proper sense. The pope nevertheless recognizes his tendencies as a sinner, and confesses wholehearted trust in God’s unending grace. And his statement about penance is remarkable: it’s a response to God’s grace, not the mechanism that activates God’s grace.

Emmert’s surprise struck me as odd: apparently he found it odd that regenerative baptism doesn’t mean we’re not sinners anymore. But when has the Church ever taught this? (And which of our faith traditions teaches “Once Saved, Always Saved,” anyways?).

Pope Francis’ Coat of Arms and Motto

Emmert’s reaction is an important reminder that there’s a lot of work to be done, even in explaining basic
teachings of Catholicism to other Christians. Still, it’s nice that Evangelicals are paying attention to Pope Francis and that they seem, on the whole, pleasantly surprised by what they’re hearing. My hope is that this leads Evangelicals (and others) to positively reevaluate their view of Catholicism.

Of course, it would be tempting to write Pope Francis off as an exception, one of “good ones,” or as going outside of Catholic Tradition by declaring himself a sinner in such a bold way. But in fact, Francis is speaking in a deeply Catholic way. For example, St. Patrick began his famous Confession this way:

I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniæ; he had a country seat nearby, and there I was taken captive. 

I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people—and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation.

But it’s not just Catholicism which is caricatured and misunderstood. The real Pope Francis stands in stark contrast from the way he’s depicted in popular culture. This interview is a good reminder, for example, that Pope Francis is genuinely a man of letters, far more cultured than you might deduce from his popular image. Not only is his motto drawn from a fairly-obscure passage from St. Bede the Venerable (673-735), but in the course of this interview, he references a wide range of authors (from Dostoevsky to Joseph Malègue), poets (Frederich Hölderlin, Alessandro Manzoni, etc.), painters (Caravaggio, Chagall, etc.), composers (Beethoven, Wagner, etc.), and conductors (he is particularly fond of Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch).

But perhaps the most fruitful response would be to simply enter into what Francis is describing. Below, you can find the Caravaggio painting of The Calling of St. Matthew, alongside St. Bede the Venerable’s homily on Matthew 9:9-13 (which, incidentally, is part of today’s Office of Readings). I’ve bolded the phrase that became the papal motto, to situate it in the beauty of its full context:

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (detail) (1600)

“Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office, and he said to him: Follow me.” Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men.

He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: “Follow me.” This following meant imitating the pattern of his life – not just walking after him. St. John tells us: “
Whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

“And he rose and followed him.”
 There is no reason for surprise that the tax collector abandoned earthly wealth as soon as the Lord commanded him. Nor should one be amazed that neglecting his wealth, he joined a band of men whose leader had, on Matthew’s assessment, no riches at all. Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps. In this way Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had incorruptible treasures of heaven in his gift.

“As he sat at table in the house, behold many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.” This conversion of one tax collector gave many men, those from his own profession and other sinners, an example of repentance and pardon. Notice also the happy and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations. No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation. He took up his appointed duties while still taking his first steps in the faith, and from that hour he fulfilled his obligation and thus grew in merit. To see a deeper understanding of the great celebration Matthew held at his house, we must realise that he not only gave a banquet for the Lord at his earthly residence, but far more pleasing was the banquet set in his own heart which he provided through faith and love. Our Savior attests to this: “
Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

On hearing Christ’s voice, we open the door to receive him, as it were, when we freely assent to his promptings and when we give ourselves over to doing what must be done. Christ, since he dwells in the hearts of his chosen ones through the grace of his love, enters so that he might eat with us and we with him. He ever refreshes us by the light of his presence insofar as we progress in our devotion to and longing for the things of heaven. He himself is delighted by such a pleasing banquet.

4 Comments

  1. Jorge Bergoglio said that he is a sinner.
    To be a sinner is one who continues to disobey the Will of the One God and who continues to live according to the freedom to do his own will.
    Jorge Bergoglio has confessed and continues to confess that it is RIGHT TO BE FREE to worship any ‘god’, any ‘religion’.

    BUT there is Only One Creator God whose identity is clearly define by His Son Jesus Christ…and it is Only Christ that will rule according to the Will of His Father and NOT according to the ‘freedom will’ of man.

    Jorge Bergoglio is a sinner and continues to be a sinner.

    1. >Jorge Bergoglio said that he is a sinner.

      Yup, just like St. Paul (1 Timothy 1:15) and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:11-14)

      > To be a sinner is one who continues to disobey the Will of the One God and who continues to live according to the freedom to do his own will.

      Does this definition apply to you? Do you always follow the Will of God in all things?
      Out of interest, where did you pull this definition?

      >Jorge Bergoglio has confessed and continues to confess that it is RIGHT TO BE FREE to worship any ‘god’, any ‘religion’.

      Quotation please. Paraphrases won’t do I’m afraid.

      >BUT there is Only One Creator God whose identity is clearly define by His Son Jesus Christ…and it is Only Christ that will rule according to the Will of His Father…

      Fair enough…the Pope confesses this at every Mass when he prays the Nicene Creed and the Our Father.

      >Jorge Bergoglio is a sinner and continues to be a sinner.

      Don’t forget me!
      I am Spartacus!

    2. John,

      Would you likewise condemn St. Paul, who declares of himself, “I am the foremost of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15)?

      And how do you reconcile your claim with what St. John says in his First Epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (v. 8), and “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (v. 10)?

      Is it possible that “sinner” doesn’t mean (or doesn’t only mean) what you’re asserting it means?

      I.X.,

      Joe

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