With all the discussion centered on what the Pope did or did not say within his interview for America magazine, there has been many opinions thrown around. Whether one deems the Pope’s words as fitting into this or that agenda, the reception of the interview has got people talking about the Catholic faith. There is nothing new in the interview with regard to the teachings of the Catholic Faith. But, our Holy Father has taken advantage of the mass-media to evangelize millions and bring to light the heart of the Gospel message. The message is: We are sinners in need of a Savior.
Pope Francis’ message is clear from the first moment of the interview. Within the beginning paragraphs, in fact the first question asked by Fr. Antonio Spadero, S.J., our Holy Father presents the Gospel message in a “nut-shell.” Fr. Spadero asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”
“I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner….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.”
This statement taken from the Pope’s episcopal motto, and specifically from the Homilies of Bede the Venerable, moves the reader to contemplate their own personal identity. Do we consider ourselves sinners, first and foremost? If someone asked us, “Who is _______?” I would venture to say that most of us would equate our identity with our family name, occupation, or even our religion. However, when we get to the most “accurate definition” of ourselves, and human nature, we are sinners.
In the interview, Pope Francis continued by reflecting upon the calling of St. Matthew, the publican and Apostle. St. Matthew, in his Gospel, accuses himself of being a publican, who would have been greedy and “a lover of other man’s goods,” as St. Cyril of Alexandria would call him (St. Thomas Aquinas, Cantena Aurea, Luke 5:27). The other Evangelists call him by “Levi.” However, St. Matthew uses the name that would manifest his sinfulness, as well as the gratuitousness of Jesus to call such a sinful man to be an Apostle. In the calling of St. Matthew, Pope Francis reflected on the beauty of his own call.
“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.”
It is evident from the Pope’s first six months, and probably his 40+ years as a priest, that the mercy of God and bringing this mercy to others (especially the poor) is the article of faith that resides closest to his heart. Our Holy Father continually stresses the need for love and mercy to those who are wounded; those longing for healing. Our world once again needs to realize that we are all sinners. We need the penetrating love and mercy, and ultimately the salvation, of Jesus Christ.
This message of the relation between sinful man and the secularism that permeates the world is not new. Pope Pius XII said in a radio address to America, “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” (Radio Message to the U.S. National Catechetical Congress in Boston) Blessed John Paul II echoed this when he wrote his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.
“If sin is the breaking, off of one’s filial relationship to God in order to situate one’s life outside of obedience to him, then to sin is not merely to deny God. To sin is also to live as if he did not exist, to eliminate him from one’s daily life. A model of society which is mutilated or distorted in one sense or another, as is often encouraged by the mass media, greatly favors the gradual loss of the sense of sin.” (#18)
Later in a 2004 address to the bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii during their “ad limina” visit, he said,
“Sin is an integral part of the truth about the human person. To recognize oneself as a sinner is the first and essential step in returning to the healing love of God. Given this reality, the Bishop’s duty to indicate the sad and destructive presence of sin, both in individuals and in communities, is in fact a service of hope. Far from being something negative, it strengthens believers to abandon evil and embrace the perfection of love and the fullness of Christian life. Let us boldly announce that indeed we are not the sum total of our weaknesses and failures! We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and capable of becoming the image of his Son!”(#3)
As a recently ordained priest (2012) of the Father of Mercy, I am edified and heartened to see our Holy Father Francis emphasize the need for God’s mercy and love. It was the availability of the Sacrament of Confession, and the amazing example of merciful priests, which made me want to become a priest myself. The priests in my life, and the Community I have been privileged to join, recognized that we are sinners, in need of Jesus’ call to conversion. This is the message and apostolate of the Fathers of Mercy, in which our motto is taken from the parable of the prodigal son: “He was moved with mercy” (Lk. 15:20). We have received Mercy, therefore we go forth preaching the Good News of Mercy in our parish missions and retreats, as well as the parishes we staff and at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7).
The title of the America article is “A Big Heart Open to God”. We have gotten a glimpse into the heart of Pope Francis. His deep love for God and the need for love and mercy is what everyone is talking about. For me, and for many others, our Holy Father’s message is not new, but provided an opportunity for an examination of conscience. “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” This is the message we carry in our hearts. This is the “fresh approach” the world needs to hear. For when we recognize that we are sinners, we begin the journey to healing. In the merciful love of Jesus, “every tear will be wiped away” (Rev. 7:17) and we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. We are sinners in need of our Savior. How truly beautiful to be a sinner looked upon by the Lord!
– Fr. Andy Cravalho, C.P.M.