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Miserando atque Eligendo

The editorial in today's L'Osservatore Romano recounts an event that transpired on this day sixty years ago:

As the Bishop of Rome confided to his priests, it was on the feast of St Matthew 60 years ago – 21 September 1953 – that he suddenly discovered his priestly vocation. The 17 year old went to confession and, as Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti recount, “I understood something strange. I don't know exactly what it was, but it changed my life”.

There is the root of the Jesuit and the Bishop who chose as his episcopal motto a unique Latin expression used by the Monk Bede to describe the calling of the Apostle Matthew, when Jesus “had mercy on him and chose him” (miserando atque eligendo). This phrase expresses perfectly the heart of our Pope, clearly shown again in his interview: the awareness of being loved by God and the need to respond to his gaze.

The Pope himself in his "Interview" speaks of visits to one of his favorite places in Rome:

When I had to come to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighborhood of] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio.

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Recent analysis shows that Caravaggio first painted Christ entering alone. Only later was the figure of Peter added, hesitantly imitating, with feeble finger outstretched, the gesture of his Lord. But the mediation of the Church is crucial ... as is the office of Peter's successor.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Recently, I was examining the Caravaggio's painting of the "Calling of St, Matthew" so that I could present it to a class on Church History next week.  I decided to add it to the presentation, since Pope Francis mentioned it in his interview.

One interpreter of the painting pointed out that the hand of Christ mirrored that of Adam in the Creation of Adam panel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Now, logically one would think that in the Caravaggio painting it would have been a copy of God's hand as in other paintings, notably the hand of Peter in Poussin's Sts. Peter & John Healing the Lame Man in the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York NY. I downloaded Michelangelo's fresco flipped it horizontally and indeed it is a copy of Adam's hand. But why? What was Caravaggio intending?

Perhaps, he was showing Christ as a human being and the second Adam.

Helen, Michelangelo has the right hand of God reacing out to the left hand of Adam.  Carvaggio copies the gesture of Adam's hand, but it is Jesus' right hand, not left that reaches out.  I'd take that to be an affirmation of Christ's two natures, true God and true man.

There are some insightful takes on the painting from a 2010 post:

I also remember reading about some controversy over the figure of Matthew in the painting. I've always taken it to be the older man who seems to be pointing at himself but it's also been suggested that Matthew is the young man in the foreground absorbed in the coins on the table.  Pope Francis seems to take the latter view, which might be the more fruitful interpretation. 

Powerful imagery. Showing mercy and choosing. Great aid to humility and reality.

Richard Smith muses: "I also remember reading about some controversy over the figure of Matthew in the painting."

Mirabile dictu: where else would he have read it if not here.

Richard Smith:

I prefer the interpretation of Pope Francis re the finger pointing of the older man to himself even though I doubt that it is true.

I read about that recent interpretation that Matthew is really the young man (not, sorry to say, on Commonweal).

The older man's hand does seem to be pointing to the young man. My interpretation was that the older man is saying something like: "You can't mean me (or I don't want it to be me). You must mean him." 

But now…I just looked more closely at what the old and young man are doing. The right hand of the older man seems to be holding down a coin. Why? Ican it be that  the young man hiding several coins with his right hand. His left hand seems to be holding a bag, perhaps to keep his stolen coins. (like Judas?)

(Another interpretation is that the older man is handing a coin to the young man but I don’t think so despite the fact that I know I am going against the interpretation of a much more expert art historian.)

Aha! Something else Pope Francis has stirred up.

On his blog Settimo Cielo, Sandro Magister continues today to defend the opinion of his art historian daughter, Sara Magister, that  Jesus is pointing at the young man. He clinches his argument by saying that this is unfailingly the spontaneous reaction of children on seeing the painting. He entitles his brief piece, "Un papa con sguardo di bambinino." (More or less,"a pope with the eyes of a child.") A compliment, I think. Magister has been rather critical of Papa Francesco.

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For those of us in Washington it's a major feast, the titular of the cathedral, St Matthew the Apostle, at Connecticut and Rhode Island Avenues.

bambino -- my shaky one-finger typing

The feast of St. Matthew has now given way to the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, but perhaps my late in the day reflection might yet interest one or two readers.

It has been pointed out a number of times by now that Pope Francis's motto,"miserando atque eligendo" is from a homily of Bede the Venerable on the calling of Matthew. That homily is the second reading from the Office of Readings for St. Matthew's feast in the revised breviary (1971). I find Bede charming, an odd reaction perhaps. As well, his Latin is very accessible to a stumbler like me.

Here is the opening of the homily:

" 'Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office, and said to him: Follow me.' Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of humankind.

He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him THROUGH THE EYES OF MERCY AND CHOSE HIM, he said to him: 'Follow me'. This following meant imitating the pattern of his life -- not just walking after him. Saint John tells us: 'Whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked'.

'And he rose and followed him'. There is no reason for surprise that the tax collector abandoned earthly wealth as soon as the Lord commanded him. Nor should one be amazed that neglecting his wealth, he joined a band of men whose leader had, on Matthew's assessment, no riches at all. Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps. In this way Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had incorruptible treasures of heaven in his gift."

The Liturgy of the Hours, 21 September, Matthew, apostle and evangelist






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