I will never forget our visit to San Luigi dei Francesi and its Contarelli chapel. There are three Caravaggio canvases hanging in this chapel:
The Inspiration of Saint Matthew
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew
The Calling of Saint Matthew
Pope Francis, in his interview last week, spoke about his own love of Caravaggio's paintings, particularly The Calling of Saint Matthew.
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.”
These words of Francis cut right to my heart, especially "he holds on to his money as if to say, 'No, not me! No, this money is mine.'"
It's not the money thing that cuts to my heart; it's just the tendency I have to hold on to stuff that really doesn't bring me or anyone else any life or goodness. What pastoral and comforting words Francis continues to speak in this short section. "I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ." For me, reading this was a moment of true evangelization. The Lord was looking right at me through Francis and challenging me to let go of the things that do not bring life to the world nor to me. But at the same time, Francis assures me that Christ's mercy and patience are infinite; mercy and patience for me, too.
As I was looking at these paintings again, something comical came to mind. On that day in Rome nearly thirty years ago, the historian guide was doing some of his own theological interpetation. Scroll up and look at the first painting again. Notice the angel, who extends his left index finger. I will never forget the guide saying, "Look at the fact that the angel extends the ONE finger, as if to say to Saint Matthew, 'When writing your gospel, tell the world that the Church is ONE, holy, Catholic, and apostolic." He spoke English with a thick Italian accent and when he reached that final phrase, he lowered his voice and in an emphatic whisper, said "ONE, holy, Catholic, and apostolic." The sibilance echoed in that cold church for several seconds.
Grateful today for a sense of humor and for the marvels God is working through Pope Francis and through the gift of art.
Gotta sing. Gotta pray.