Pope Francis’ priestly vocation was born seventy years ago, on 21 September 1953. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was almost 17.
On 11 March 1958, he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus. On 13 December 1969, just a few days before his thirty-third birthday, Jorge Mario Bergoglio would be ordained to the priesthood.
In Argentina, 21 September marks the feast of the student; for the Church, it is the feast of St. Matthew, a public sinner called by Jesus to become an Apostle. The Pope himself in 2013 recounted what happened on that very special day, back in 1953.
“Before going to the party, I passed by the parish where I was going, found a priest, whom I did not know, and felt the need to go to confession. This was an experience of encounter for me: I found that someone was waiting for me. But I don’t know what happened, I don’t remember, I don’t really know why it was that priest there, whom I didn’t know, why I felt this urge to go to confession, but the truth is that someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for a long time. After confession, I felt that something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard just like a voice, a call: I was convinced that I had to become a priest. This experience in faith is important. We say that we must seek God, go to Him to ask forgiveness, but when we go, He is waiting for us, He is first! … You go [a] sinner, but He is waiting to forgive you. (Vigil of Pentecost 18 May 2013)“
Pope Francis’ vocation was born in the experience of God’s mercy. Pope Francis chose as his motto “Miserando atque eligendo,” taken from the Homilies of St Bede the Venerable (Hom. 21; CCL 122, 149-151), who, commenting on the Gospel episode of the vocation of St Matthew, writes: “Vidit ergo lesus publicanum et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi sequere me” (‘Jesus saw the tax collector and, because He saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, He said to him: Follow me’).
Pope Francis has repeatedly described the painting of the vocation of St. Matthew by Caravaggio in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, which he often loved to observe.
“Jesus came from healing a paralytic and as he was leaving he found this man called Matthew. The Gospel says: “He saw a man called Matthew.” And where was this man? Sitting at the tax booth. One of those who made the people of Israel pay taxes, to give them to the Romans: a traitor to his country. These were despised. The man felt looked down upon by Jesus. He said to him, ‘Follow me. ‘ And he got up and followed Him.” But what happened? That is the power of Jesus’ gaze. Surely he looked at Him with so much love, with so much mercy: that look of the merciful Jesus: ‘Follow me, come’. And the other looking sideways, with one eye on God and the other on money, clinging to money as Caravaggio painted him: just like that, clinging and also with a surly, gruff look. And Jesus loving, merciful. And the resistance of the man who wanted money – he was such a slave to money – falls. “And he got up and followed Him”. It is the struggle between mercy and sin. But how did the love of Jesus enter that man’s heart? What was the door for it to enter? Because the man knew he was a sinner: he knew it. The first condition to be saved is to feel in danger; the first condition to be healed, is to feel sick. To feel oneself a sinner is the first condition for receiving this merciful gaze. One may say, ‘Father, but is it a grace to feel sinful, really?’ For it is to feel the truth. But not sinner in the abstract: sinner for this, for this, for this. Concrete sin, concrete sins! And we all have many of them! Let us go there and let Jesus look at us with that merciful gaze full of love… (Homily at Santa Marta, 21 September 2017)’
Pope Francis has often acknowledged that he can relate to St. Matthew.
“That finger of Jesus like that, towards Matthew. That’s how I am. That’s how I feel. Like Matthew. It is Matthew’s gesture that strikes me: he grabs his money, as if to say: ‘no, not me! No, this money is mine!” Here, this is me: a sinner to whom the Lord has turned his eyes. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as Pope… (Interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., 19 August 2013)”