How one biblical account transcends centuries and enlightens a man in his last days
Bernie Ronan, PhD
I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air…
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
The day Jesus of Nazareth walked into the tax collector’s den and called Matthew was a compelling moment. Surely Matthew was compelled, for he followed without hesitation (Matthew 9:9–13). The dynamism persists: The story found its way into three of the Gospels; 700 years later it captivated the Venerable Bede; 800 years after Bede it enthralled an artist named Caravaggio. And a few years ago, a young Argentinian named Jorge Bergoglio reaffirmed the incident’s forcefulness. It is at this point in the sustenance of the tale of Matthew’s merciful calling—through the juxtaposition of meanings in a person, a painting, and a Latin sentence—that I, too, became compelled.
Peeling back these palimpsests of meaning reveals, and illuminates, what it means to be mercifully called. For Bergoglio, the first call came at age seventeen. He tells the story of how, in 1953, on the first day of spring (also the feast of St. Matthew), he was going to a party when he decided, on a whim, to stop at church and go to confession. The experience changed his life; he felt the call by God to become a priest. “The loving face of God crossed my path,” he recounted, “and invited me to follow him.”
Fast-forward to his election as Pope Francis and his first interview. He was asked, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” Educated as a Jesuit and a scientist, he knew how to answer a definitional question. His startling response: “I am a sinner.” Being a sinner forgiven by God defines him. I remember being stunned by his simple response. Stunned into thought: How would I answer that question? Why were our answers so different? What does this mean for his tenure as pope, that the leader of the Catholic Church defines himself by his sinfulness?
The simple answer is that he experienced life-changing forgiveness that day as a teenager on the feast of St. Matthew. The experience of mercy, as seen in the Gospel where Jesus calls and forgives Matthew, arcs like a rainbow over Francis’ life. And his Jesuit and episcopal ministries brought him back to Rome often, where he visited the French national church, San Luigi dei Francesi, to reflect on the rendition of the compelling scene as depicted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew is seen as one of the great paintings of all time. Though it has a majestic sweep, its subject and portrayal are mundane, dense with the drama of the everyday.
I’ve always loved the painting, but a decade ago it began to compel me. Since then, I’ve looked at prints of the painting several times a year, especially since Francis’ election, reflecting on the historic encounter’s blend of mercy and recruitment. So on a rainy morning this past October, I retraced Bergoglio’s steps into the historic center of the city, down the Via della Scrofa, and entered the dark church to find myself cheek to jowl with pilgrims from all over who came to see Caravaggio’s work.
Three paintings by the Italian artist reflect the life of Matthew. Caravaggio was given the commission in 1600 by a French cardinal named Matthew, who sought to honor his namesake. The painting in the center of the chapel (The Inspiration of St. Matthew) depicts the evangelist at work, writing, with an angel overhead as if guiding his effort. The painting on the right side (The Martyrdom of St. Matthew) dramatically depicts the last moments of Matthew’s life, when it all went pear-shaped, as the British say—he is being fearfully executed with a sword. It is the first painting of the three, however—that fateful scene where Jesus calls Matthew—that drew Bergoglio (and now me) back to the Church.
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