On this day, the feast of St. Matthew, sixty-two years ago, a teenager walked out of the confessional, relieved and at peace. The profound experience of God's mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation planted a seed. He felt moved to offer himself to God in a religious vocation, as a Jesuit.
Years later he was ordained a bishop and he chose, as his episcopal motto, "Miserando Atque Eligendo." This phrase comes from a homily of St. Bede that is the second reading in the Breviary's Office of Readings today. Jesus saw the tax collector (Matthew, the sinner) and "because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said 'Follow me.'"
The Jesuit bishop, of course, was Jorge Bergoglio who is now known as Pope Francis. At the age of seventeen in 1953 he experienced God's mercy in such a profound way that he, like Matthew, left the life he had planned and followed Jesus. He saw himself as a sinner and called. Not, "a sinner yet called," but "a sinner and called."
This is an important distinction. Why?
First, as Jesus said in today's Gospel (Matthew 9: 9-13), he "did not come to call the righteous but sinners." "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do." Jesus is God's mercy in the flesh. He reaches out precisely to sinners and calls them to freedom, health, new life.
Second, God tends to choose "the weak" and "the lowly" in order to make clear that it is divine power at work and not human power, "so that no human being might boast before God" (1 Corinthians 1: 27-29). Sinners know where they have come from and so can more easily remain humble.
Third, sinners make great evangelizers. Having experienced the good news of God's mercy, they want to share that news with others. And their sharing is more convincing because "they've been there." Others can see in these sinners-turned-evangelizers the possibility and hope of their own freedom.
Thus it is no surprise that right after he leaves his job to follow Jesus, Matthew throws a party at which there were many tax-collectors and sinners.
In his homily, St. Bede writes that this wasn't the only banquet. Besides the banquet in Matthew's house, there was another that was even better: "But far more pleasing was the banquet set in his own heart which he provided through faith and love." Matthew welcomed mercy into his heart which then opened to his fellow sinners. And to Jesus. Jesus, finding a merciful heart like his own, felt very comfortable there in Matthew's heart.
May he find such a welcome in our hearts as well.