The Feast of St Matthew has a very special significance for Pope Francis, as it is linked to the story of his own conversion. On this very day, when he was not yet 17, as Bergoglio later recounted at the start of his episcopate, he suddenly perceived that his life would truly have meaning were he to take a radical choice. This perception would mature over time but he immediately related it to the call of the tax collector: Jesus looked upon him with mercy and chose him. Miserando atque eligendo, as a medieval monk would effectively describe this Gospel event many centuries later.
When Bergoglio was later appointed bishop, he remembered those expressive words and chose them as his episcopal motto. On Monday he once again turned his thoughts to the vocation of Matthew the tax collector, as he celebrated Mass in the hot morning sun of Holguín. “We are celebrating the story of a conversion”, the Pontiff said, speaking of a life- changing encounter, of an “exchange of glances” capable of changing history. This is in fact “our story, and it is like that of so many others. Each of us can say: ‘I, too, am a sinner, whom Jesus has looked upon’”.
Today in Cuba this is a task that the Church takes on with effort and sacrifice, the Pontiff continued, “to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas”. She does so, for example, through the “mission houses” which, despite the lack of churches and shortage of priests, “provide for many people a place for prayer, for listening to the word of God, for catechesis and for community life”. These are truly “signs of God’s presence in our neighbourhoods”, which help us to experience the Gospel and his mercy, open to any one who feels excluded.But that is not enough, Pope Francis continued. Love is what made him take up the mission. And it perfectly explains the phrase, “Missionary of mercy”, the motto of his visit to Cuba. For the Apostle Matthew “and for all who have felt the gaze of Jesus, other people are no longer to be ‘lived off’, used and abused. The gaze of Jesus gives rise to missionary activity, service, self-giving. Other people are those whom Jesus serves. His love heals our short-sightedness and pushes us to look beyond, not to be satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct”, the Pontiff explained to the tens of thousands of Cubans there to hear him.
From the Gospel message and from the Pope’s own personal experience, he extracted powerful encouragement for Cuba’s Catholics. Just as he had done in the meetings in Havana with men and women religious and students, consigning his prepared discourses, preferring instead to improvise two lengthy responses to the “prophets” they had just listened to: “Cardinal Jaime”, Archbishop of the capital city, and a young nun. And he did the same in a long private meeting with the episcopate of Cuba at the National Shrine of the Virgin of El Cobre, whose centenary as the nation’s Patroness now being celebrated. The encounter was sealed by a silent prayer before this widely venerated figure.
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