Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
March 29, 2013
One of the most fascinating aspects of the biography of our Pope Francis is when and how he discovered his priestly vocation. It’s a mystery worth pondering deeply on this Good Friday.
Jorge Bergoglio was a 16-year-old boy planning to go out to celebrate with friends on Students Day, an Argentine national holiday, which is always held on the first day of spring, September 21, in the southern hemisphere.
In the Church’s liturgical calendar, however, September 21 is the feast of St. Matthew, the once despicable tax collector who was shockingly called by the Lord to become one of His Apostles, and who in response to his own call summoned others who were spiritually sick to experience the same healing from the Divine Physician he himself had received.
Jorge decided to start the holiday by going to pray at his parish Church of St. Joseph. When he arrived, he saw a priest he didn’t know but who gave off a strong impression of holiness. He decided to approach him for the Sacrament of Penance. The need to confess may have been the reason this teen-ager had wanted to go to church that Monday morning in the first place.
We don’t know what he confessed to the priest or what the priest said to him in response. But we do know that that Confession totally changed not only Jorge Bergoglio’s day but the trajectory of his whole existence.
Reminiscing 57 years later in “El Jesuita,” a 2010 book-length interview, the future pope said, “In that Confession, something very rare happened to me. I don’t know what it was, but it changed my life. I would say that I was caught with my guard down. It was a surprise, the astonishment of an encounter. I realized that God was waiting for me. From that moment for me, God has been the One Who acts first. One is searching for Him but He is looking for you first.”
During that Sacramental conversation with the priest, he realized that that the merciful God Who had been waiting for him and Who had come to meet him through the priest’s ministrations was calling him to be a priest. After the profound encounter with the Hound of Heaven — the same One Who had once invaded St. Matthew’s life and called him to leave his ill-gained money on the table and come follow Him — Jorge decided not to go to the train station to meet his friends, but to return home, pondering the mystery and meaning of his call.
The new pope still retains in his breviary a lengthy personal credo he wrote during a spiritually intense moment before his priestly ordination, in one of the articles of which he states, “I believe in my history, which was pierced by the God’s look of love and, on the first day of spring, September 21, He came to meet me and invited me to follow Him.”
While we don’t know for sure any of the details of that conversation between Christ and His future vicar on earth through the in persona Christi ministrations of the confessor, we can deduce a lot from the motto that Jorge Bergoglio chose for his episcopacy and now his papacy: “Miserando atque Eligendo.”
It comes from a commentary by St. Bede the Venerable on Christ’s call of Matthew, which is read by priests across the world every year on September 21 in the Office of Readings. St. Bede wrote, “Vidit publicánum et, quia miserándo atque eligéndo vidit, ait illi: Séquere me,” which is translated, “He saw the tax collector and, because He saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, He said to him: “Follow Me.’”
It’s quite possible that the priest hearing Jorge Bergoglio’s Confession might have mentioned to him St. Bede’s insight that just as the Lord looked at Matthew with mercy and called him, so He might be looking at Jorge with the same piercing look of merciful love and choosing him in the same way.
It’s quite often that young people think that because they’re sinners, they cannot possibly have the call to be a priest. As we see in the life of SS. Matthew, Peter, Paul, Augustine and so many others, however, the Lord often calls not despite one’s sins but precisely because of them. This is so that, having been transfixed by the Lord’s mercy, they might be capable of ministering that same life-changing merciful glance to others.
It’s certainly possible that during that Confession, after Jorge Bergoglio contritely confessed his sins, the gentle confessor mentioned to him that the whole experience of humbly confessing his sins might be part of God’s larger plan to help form him to be a tender, merciful confessor of others one day.
Regardless, over the years as he looked back at the experience and marked each year the anniversary of his calling, he pondered St. Bede’s insight about the connection between God’s mercy and call. He likely saw an autobiographical application to the seventh-century English saint’s words, “By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he taught him to walk in His footsteps.”
He also probably discovered the path of his future priestly apostolate in St. Bede’s commentary of how Matthew responded to his vocation. “This conversion of one tax collector gave many men, those from his own profession and other sinners, an example of repentance and pardon. No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation.”
On the first Sunday of his papal ministry, Pope Francis called far more people to God’s mercy than any party St. Matthew had ever thrown with Christ as the guest of honor. In his homily at the Vatican’s parish church of St. Anne and in his Angelus meditation from his study window before a crowd of 300,000, he stressed what he discovered back on Sept. 21, 1953.
“The Lord never tires of forgiving: never! It is we who tire of asking for His forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace never to tire of asking for forgiveness, because God never tires of giving His forgiveness,” he said at the end of his homily.
As the exclamation of his Angelus meditation, after repeating those words from his homily, he exhorted us: “Let us never tire, let us never tire! He is the loving Father Who always pardons, Who has that heart of mercy for us all. And let us too learn how to be merciful to everyone.”
On this Good Friday, this theme of mercy ought to be very much before us. The Lamb of God was slain precisely in order to take away the sins of the world, and it’s in this act of receiving this forgiveness that we discover our true vocation, miserando atque eligendo. Christ came to call sinners and our vocation is found in responding to and living in accordance with that offer of mercy.
We see that most powerfully in the story of Dismas, the good thief. He heard the crucified man to his left, as his torturers were hammering his limbs to the cross, cry out not in pain or in complaint but shockingly in prayer for mercy: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!”
It pierced him to the heart and provided a sort of summons that led him in faith to ask to steal Heaven.
“Jesus,” he said, “Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” And Jesus looked at him with a piercing glance of merciful love and revealed to him the most sublime vocation of all: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with Me in Paradise!”
Today is a day in which we all should ask for what the good thief begged.
And helped by our new Holy Father to recognize that the Lord Jesus is always miserando atque eligendo, let us recognize that in dying for us today and crying to the Father for mercy on our behalf, He was likewise calling us to Himself, like Matthew and Francis, to receive that forgiveness and bring others to experience it, too.