Pope Francis and Saint Matthew

The Calling of St. Matthew is a masterpiece by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, depicting the moment at which Jesus Christ inspires Matthew to follow Him.

On September 21st, the Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. Saint Matthew is the secondary patron of our diocese since our co-cathedral in South Bend was dedicated with the title of Saint Matthew. Matthew, the tax collector turned apostle, is the patron saint of accountants, money managers, bankers, bookkeepers, financial officers, and tax collectors.

In art, Saint Matthew is sometimes represented as an angel or as a man holding a bag of coins or money bag. Matthew abandoned earthly wealth and dishonest practices to follow Jesus who summoned him away from earthly gain to receive a greater treasure. Matthew became one of the twelve apostles and wrote the first Gospel. He died a martyr’s death and inherited the treasure of heaven.

In 1953, on the feast of Saint Matthew, the young Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis), at the age of 17, experienced, in a very special and intimate way, the loving presence of God in his life. He went to confession and felt his heart touched by the mercy of God. It changed his life. At that moment, he also felt God’s call to the priesthood and religious life as a Jesuit.

In memory of that holy event in his life, Pope Francis chose as his episcopal (and later papal) motto the words “miserando atque eligendo” (“having mercy and choosing”). These words are found in a sentence in a homily by Saint Bede on the calling of Saint Matthew. They are read in the Office of Readings on the Feast of Saint Matthew. Saint Bede wrote: “Jesus therefore sees the tax collector, and since He sees by having mercy and by choosing, He says to him, ‘Follow me.’”

To understand Pope Francis, it is helpful to know about this important event in his life on the Feast of Saint Matthew in 1953. The young Jorge Bergoglio felt the tender gaze of God’s love, His mercy, and his vocation. In an interview, Pope Francis spoke of that event in these words: “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 (to guide me)… We want to meet Him, but He meets us first.”

Just as Jesus had summoned Matthew to become His apostle, Jesus called the teenage Jorge Bergoglio to be His emissary. Pope Francis once said: “I believe in my history — which was pierced by God’s look of love, on September 21, the feast of Saint Matthew — He came to meet me and invited me to follow Him.”

That vocational encounter and piercing look of God’s merciful love has influenced Pope Francis’ life and ministry. That’s why he chose the words of Saint Bede as his motto. Clearly, major themes of his papacy have been his teaching on divine mercy, the joyful encounter with Jesus, and the infinite tenderness of God. He has proclaimed a Holy Year, the Jubilee Year of Mercy, that will begin on December 8th. The Holy Father is calling us to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus and to proclaim, celebrate, and live the Gospel of Mercy.

The gaze of Jesus completely overtook the tax collector and sinner Matthew. It changed his life. It changed Jorge Bergoglio’s life. It changes our life.

Pope Francis says: “Jesus’ gaze always lifts us up. It is a look that always lifts us up… never lets us down… It invites us to get up… to move forward. The gaze makes you feel that He loves you. This gives the courage to follow Him. And “Matthew got up and followed Him’.”

When he visited Rome prior to becoming Pope, Jorge Bergoglio always stayed in the neighborhood of the Church of Saint Louis of France. He would often go there to contemplate the famous painting of “The Calling of Saint Matthew” by Caravaggio. In the painting, Jesus is pointing at Matthew. Matthew is holding on to his money as if to say “No, not me! No, this money is mine.” Pope Francis says he sees himself in Matthew – a sinner on whom the Lord turned His gaze. He trusted in Christ’s infinite mercy and accepted His calling: to become a Jesuit, a priest, a bishop, and pope.

As our nation prepares to welcome Pope Francis, let us pray for our Holy Father. May his message of mercy and hope touch the hearts of all Americans! May we heed his call to be a Church which goes out, offering to all, especially the poor and suffering, the love and mercy of Jesus Christ! May Saint Matthew pray for us.

Posted on September 15, 2015, to: