24 January 2015

'Repent . . . believe . . . follow me.' Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Jacob Willemsz de Wet the Elder
Private collection [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa) 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Speaking in Rome to members of ecclesial movements on the evening of Saturday 17 May 2013, the Vigil of Pentecost, Pope Francis told this story:

One day in particular, though, was very important to me: 21 September 1953. I was almost 17. It was 'Students’ Day', for us the first day of spring — for you the first day of autumn. Before going to the celebration I passed through the parish I normally attended, I found a priest that I did not know and I felt the need to go to confession. For me this was an experience of encounter: I found that someone was waiting for me. Yet I do not know what happened, I can’t remember, I do not know why that particular priest was there whom I did not know, or why I felt this desire to confess, but the truth is that someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for some time. After making my confession I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice, or a call. I was convinced that I should become a priest.

In an interview with Sergio Rubin, an Argentinian journalist, in 2010 the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio SJ of Buenos Aires said:

In that confession, something very rare happened to me. I don’t know what it was, but it changed my life. I would say that I was caught with my guard down. … It was a surprise, the astonishment of an encounter. I realized that God was waiting for me. From that moment, for me, God has been the one who precedes [to guide me]. … We want to meet him, but he meets us first.

What is striking is that the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio experienced God's call to the priesthood unexpectedly and within the context of confession.

Drawing by Rembrandt, c.1655 [Wikipedia]

The First Reading, from the Book of Jonah, shows the people of Nineveh, from the King down, believing the reluctant prophet and then fasting and repenting.

In the Gospel Jesus preaches, Repent, and believe in the good news. It is in the context of that proclamation to the people in Galilee that Jesus invites Simon and Andrew, James and John, to follow him. Each of the four could make the words of Pope Francis their own: For me this was an experience of encounter: I found that someone was waiting for me. Yet I do not know what happened . . . I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice, or a call. That call was to lead the four of them to leave everything to follow him, a decision that was to bring three of them to martyrdom. The young Jorge Mario Bergoglio could not have had the slightest idea that listening to God's call would lead him to Rome.

Twelve or thirteen years ago I did a mission appeal in a parish in England where the then recently appointed parish priest had inherited a filthy rectory/presbytery/convento from his predecessor. He had managed by then to clean up only his own bedroom. He could not invite me to stay at his place because the guest room was filthy and so had me put up by a neighbouring parish priest.

The people of Nineveh cleaned up the the 'room' of their inner heart by turning away from sin and allowed the word of God to enter. The Gospel suggests that the two sets of fishermen-brothers had done the same and were able to hear and respond to the call of Jesus there and then.

There is nothing to suggest in the Pope's story about his encounter with the Lord at the age of 17 that he was a great sinner. But it was while confessing his sins and receiving absolution, that great act of the mercy and compassion of God, the theme of his recent visit to us in the Philippines, that he heard God's call to the priesthood very clearly.

Caravaggio, 1599-1600 [Wikipedia]

Pope Francis spoke to the young people assembled at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, about the painting above. It was on the feast of St Matthew that he had that encounter with the Lord in confession. In his impromptu speech he said:

Think of Saint Matthew. He was a good businessman. He also betrayed his country because he collected taxes from the Jews and paid them to the Romans. He was loaded with money and he collected taxes. Then Jesus comes along, looks at him and says: 'Come, follow me'. Matthew couldn’t believe it. If you have some time later, go look at the picture that Caravaggio painted about this scene. Jesus called him, like this (stretching out his hand). Those who were with Jesus were saying: '[He is calling] this man, a traitor, a scoundrel?' And Matthew hangs on to his money and doesn’t want to leave. But the surprise of being loved wins him over and he follows Jesus. That morning, when Matthew was going off to work and said goodbye to his wife, he never thought that he was going to return in a hurry, without money to tell his wife to prepare a banquet. The banquet for the one who loved him first, who surprised him with something important, more important than all the money he had.

Perhaps very few experience God's call to their vocation in life, whether it is to marriage, to the consecrated life as a religious or as a lay person, to the priesthood, to remaining single, in as clear a way as Jorge Mario Bergoglio did. But in order to hear God's call, in order to respond to God's will, in order to live out God's call till the end of our life it is necessary to have a pure and uncluttered heart.

This is expressed in the Lord's Prayer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . . forgive us our trespasses . . .

The Our Father sung in Tagalog during the meeting of Pope Francis with young people at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, on 18 January. [There was no Mass celebrated on this occasion.]

Repent . . . believe . . . follow me.

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