The Astonishment of an Encounter, Sixty Years Later, The Anchor, September 20, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
September 20, 2013

In the Christian faith, we give great prominence to vocational events, when God suddenly comes on the scene and summons someone to his service.

Some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art depict the moments when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus met Matthew at his customs’ post or Peter, Andrew, James and John on the shore, Yahweh met Moses in a burning bush, and Christ in a burst of light startled Saul on the road to Damascus.

Most priests and religious are able to pinpoint the moment when they knew the Lord was calling them, and happily answer questions about it hundreds of times in their lives.

Tomorrow, we mark the sixtieth anniversary of such a vocational moment. It was a secret encounter that in God’s plans not only altered the life trajectory of a bright 16 year-old chemist but, as we all discovered six months ago, also ecclesiastical and world history.

It was September 21, 1953 and a teenage Jorge Bergoglio was planning to spend the day with friends. Before meeting with them at the train station, he stopped by to pray at his parish Church dedicated to St. Joseph.

A priest he had never seen before was in the Church. He decided to approach him and asked him to hear his confession. We don’t know what Jorge said to the priest or how the priest replied. But we do know that that confession totally changed not only the teenager’s plans for the day but for the whole course of his life.

On May 18, the Vigil of Pentecost, Pope Francis shared some of his memories of this pivotal event in his vocation story.

“One day in particular was very important to me: September 21, 1953. I was almost 17. It was ‘Students’ Day,’ for us the first day of spring — for you the first day of autumn. Before going to the celebration I passed through the parish I normally attended. I found a priest whom I did not know and I felt the need to go to confession. For me this was an experience of encounter: I found that Someone was waiting for me. Yet I do not know what happened. I can’t remember. I do not know why that particular priest was there whom I did not know, or why I felt this desire to confess, but the truth is that Someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for some time. After making my confession I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice, or a call. I was convinced that I should become a priest.”

He gave some extra details in 2010, in a book length interview with Sergio Rubin.

“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 precedes you. We are searching for him but he is looking for you first. We want to meet him, but he meets us first.”

Six decades later, Pope Francis is still astonished at the significance of this encounter, of a God who awaits us, who comes to meet us. Before God had said “Let there be light,” he had made an appointment to meet Jorge Bergoglio in a Buenos Aires confessional and summon him to his service.

“We say we must seek God, go to him and ask forgiveness,” Pope Francis said at the Pentecost Vigil, “but when we go, he is waiting for us, he is there first! In Spanish we have a word that explains this well: primerear — the Lord always gets there before us, he gets there first, he is waiting for us! To find someone waiting for you is truly a great grace. You go to him as a sinner, but he is waiting to forgive you. … When we seek him, we discover that he is waiting to welcome us, to offer us his love. And this fills your heart with such wonder that you can hardly believe it, and this is how your faith grows — through an encounter with a Person.”

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.

His papal motto, taken from the Office of Readings every priest reads on September 21 for the Feast of St. Matthew, relives the encounter that took place in the Buenos Aires confessional. “Miserando atque Eligendo,” St. Bede’s words about the former tax collector that can also fittingly be said about the one-time Argentine chemist: “He saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him.”

He told Sergio Rubin that he still carries in his breviary a lengthy personal testimony of faith he wrote before his priestly ordination, in which he affirmed, “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.”

Jorge Bergoglio has been following in those footsteps now for sixty years.

And now we’re on pilgrimage with him.