Josh Elzner, Contributing Writer
“‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ ‘I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.’”
When I encountered the interview of Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., it became apparent to me that two words expressed the heart of what he wanted to say: merciful love. Rather than going into a detailed examination of the interview, I want to simply speak from my own conviction as someone who encounters in Pope Francis’ words the radiant fire of Christ’s love.
It is deeply significant that Pope Francis’ first words in the interview are to call himself a sinner. This statement, indeed, is the basis for understanding everything else he says. Especially when, later on in the interview, he is asked to comment upon what he sees as the proper role of the Church in regard to homosexuals, post-abortive women, and those who have left the Church, this awareness of his own sin is all-important. “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon,” he says, referring to his motto: “miserando atque eligendo,” which is taken from the calling of St. Matthew. The gerund miserando is literally untranslatable, but the pope calls it “mercy-ing.” Matthew becomes who he is because Christ has mercy on him – he is “‘merc-ied’ and chosen.” The same is true for us. It is simply because the light of God’s merciful love casts itself into my darkness that I become what I am, not only a child of God but a witness of His love to the world. Our love for others is the extension of the love we have received from God, yet not in such a way that it descends from my superior position to those lower than I. Rather, it is humble obedience. The unity lies in the intensity of God’s passionate love for us – infinitely beyond all we will ever be able to simply grasp for ourselves – and in our vocation to return that love with our own total surrender.
Once I recognize the earth-shattering reality of God’s intimate love for each and every person, the path opens from my own private faith and relationship with God to the “other” who is loved by the same God as I. When I allow God’s mercy to flood my misery, I am then enabled to descend into the misery of others, not as a judge or even as a physician, but as a brother or sister who is willing to suffer with the one who suffers. In this way, the one who has not experienced God’s life-giving love as I have will, through me, encounter God. And it is here that I must have the humility to disappear, so that the light of Christ alone will shine, so that the person whom I love will encounter only Jesus.
The experience of the personal love of God, whether I am inside the Church or feeling totally alienated from her, will unlock to me all those doors which were previously closed. All of the obligations of moral living in the Church, the wholesale acceptance of all that the Church teaches – even what I cannot yet justify to myself by my own understanding— and, indeed, a life of striving for the highest sanctity will simply follow as a matter of course from this encounter with Divine Love. For love is satisfied only if it gives everything to the Beloved, and accepts everything thatthe Beloved offers.
Thus, if we want to share with those outside the Church the beauty of what we have received, we must be willing to reveal to them the intimacy of our experience of God’s love. Indeed, we must allow it even to be trampled in the mud of derision, to undergo the suffocating pain of their darkness, and yet, in the midst of it all, keep loving in simple obedience to the One who has loved us. As Pope Francis said, “You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”