What made him a disciple was the trust God showed in him despite his many sins.
Pope Francis recently created a video message to the Church of the Americas to recognize the American Jubilee, which is being celebrated in Bogota, Columbia, August 27-30th.
In the quote above he is speaking of St. Paul, a self-proclaimed blasphemer, persecutor of Christians, and man of violence. The Apostle Paul did not earn God’s favor through good behavior. Indeed, if anyone was an enemy of Christ and the early Christian ecclesia it was Paul. Paul was the type of man that Christians are so tempted to hate and to malign. Actually he was much worse. He rounded up Christians like cattle, imprisoned them and likely oversaw the death of many Christians including St. Stephen. He was absolutely opposed to the Gospel. What happened? Did St. Paul all the sudden become a good guy? Not really. Similarly, are Christians better people than non-Christians? Do they have reason to feel they are better than others? Especially not.
A Christian is not a person who is extraordinarily virtuous, or a person who has made good decisions in life, or a person who is in God’s in-group because of special favor from God (while so many others are excluded). A Christian, whether a pope or a catechumen, a priest or a married man, a religious woman or a single woman who longs to be married, is a person who is participating in a salvific and sanctifying relationship with the Creator in the context of the holy ecclesia. This relationship is not borne of virtue, but borne of mercy and received as a grace. A Christian is a person who, especially by no virtue of their own, completely by the mercy of God is borne again of water and the Holy Spirit. Through mercy they received a new and spiritual life, are reconciled to the Creator, and adopted as sons and daughters of God, becoming heirs of God’s kingdom.
It is not virtue that has turned us from being enemies of God to adopted children of God, but mercy. It is a gift we receive from a place of indigence rather than virtue. And we are continually offered to renew and grow in this gift as we spend, pollute, and distort it for selfish purposes.
Then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in an address to catechists and wrote:
“reducing Christianity to morality loses sight of the essence of Christ’s message… Whoever converts to Christ does not mean to create his own moral autarchy for himself, does not intend to build his own goodness through his own strengths. “Conversion” (metanoia) means exactly the opposite: to come out of self-sufficiency to discover and accept our indigence… Unconverted life is self-justification; conversion is humility in entrusting oneself to the love of the Other, a love that becomes the measure and criteria of my own life.”
Being Christian is woefully misunderstood if it implies a path that becomes another form of self justification and self-aggrandizement. Indeed, if it becomes this we are warned that the measure we use against others will be measured unto us. Why focus so intensely on the sins of others while not grasping our own indigence?
Pope Francis has experienced first hand, in his own person, and in his many years of experience working in ministry with others that nothing is more contrary to life in Christ, to the action of the Holy Spirit, than self-righteousness. There is perhaps no graver danger for the spiritual life and it is why we often see those who preach intensely against the sins of others fall from great heights. It is such a danger to take this path. This doesn’t mean we should be indifferent or cowardly in the face of real evil but instead that we relate to evil in others and ourselves in such a way it is not compounded and we are not unwittingly taken down by it. For instance, is a person who is filled with resentment and anger towards sinners really close to God? Or are they not the most deceived? We are told by Jesus himself that not everyone who says, Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of heaven and that many who say they known Him He will say He does not truly know.
Pope Francis reminds us in his Message to the Americas we call ourselves Christians because with Paul we can say we have received mercy. Despite our sins, our limitations, our failings and many falls we seek and receive mercy from the Lord. Indeed without freely participating in a relationship with the Lord of all creation in Christ our Merciful Savior we are acting out a charade of the ego and likely living a double life, a life of duplicity. Conversely, to the extent that we trust in the Lord, rely on His mercy and lead not with our self-aggrandizement but our weakness, to this extent do we have the hope of being touched by the mercy of God. From this experience we can truly be evangelizers who touch people in a salvific way with the love and mercy of God. As Pope Francis reminds us, “mercy is learned because our Father continues to forgive us.”
Blessed are the poor…