Homily of Archbishop Charles J. Brown, Apostolic Nuncio, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Wexford
27 October 2013
The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
One hundred and thirty years ago in 1884, a book was published in Russian in the city of Kazan with the title Candid Narrations of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father. This remarkable text describes the spiritual and geographical journey of a wandering Russian pilgrim in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was translated into French in the first part of the twentieth century, and has become a spiritual classic in both Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Pilgrim makes his way by continually reciting what is known in the East as the Jesus Prayer or the Prayer of the Heart, which is an adaptation of the prayer of the tax collector in today’s Gospel: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The Russian Pilgrim desires to pray this prayer unceasingly and as he prays it on his journeys he encounters the mercy of God.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus contrasts what we might call inauthentic and authentic prayer. The first is represented by the Pharisee who comes to the temple and begins to say “Thank you God, that I am not like that guy there or even like other people in general – cheaters, sinners and adulterers… I am thankful that I am better than they are.” In describing this form of prayer, Jesus adds a phrase which helps us to understand what is wrong here. “Two men went up to pray,” Jesus says, “one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself.” To himself. He is not speaking to God in the end. He is talking to himself and telling himself how pleased he is with himself. That’s not prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God” (CCC 2559). Prayer is not a monologue with our own ego. Prayer draws us out of ourselves into something beyond us; indeed, into Someone beyond us.
When we listen to a beautiful piece of music, we are drawn into something beyond ourselves. We respond interiorly to music on the level of our intellect, but also on the level of our emotions and feelings. We respond to what we receive. And in a certain sense the same thing is true of the experience of God. When we truly come into contact with the living God, we experience his unfathomable mercy and the response of our heart is both an acknowledgment of, and a desire for this boundless mercy. That is the prayer of the tax collector in the Gospel today; that is the prayer of the Russian pilgrim: the personal experience of mercy and the desire for mercy.
The theme of mercy is at the heart of the Christian message. In a certain sense, it is the Christian message. And it is at the heart of the Pontificate of Pope Francis. When he was elected Pope, Pope Francis chose as his personal motto the words miserando atque eligendo, which refer directly to a tax collector in the Gospel, a tax collector whom Jesus looked at with mercy and chose, inviting him to leave his former way of life and follow him. The tax collector’s name was Matthew. Matthew experienced the mercy of Christ and that experience made him a follower of the Lord and an author of one of the Gospels.
As Pope Francis recently said in a homily: “…if we are like the Pharisee, before the altar, who said: ‘I thank you Lord, that I am not like other men, and especially not like the one at the door, like that publican’ (cf. Luke 18:11-12), then we do not know the Lord’s heart, and we will never have the joy of experiencing this mercy! It is not easy to entrust oneself to God’s mercy, because it is an abyss beyond our comprehension. But we must! […] Let us go back to the Lord. The Lord never tires of forgiving: never! It is we who tire of asking his forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace not to tire of asking forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving. Let us ask for this grace” (Pope Francis, Homily, 17 March 2013).
And even Pope Francis’s tastes in music are shaped by this fundamental theme of mercy. In his now famous recently-published interview in La Civiltà Cattolica, Pope Francis speaks of his special love for Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and especially for the aria Erbarme dich, the tears of Saint Peter in the second part of the work where Saint Peter suddenly recognizes the enormity of his betrayal of Christ and cries out “Erbarme dich, erbarme dich, mein Gott.” “Have mercy, have mercy on me my God.” Peter denied Jesus three times and cried out for mercy in his desperation. But later, after the resurrection, Jesus appears to Peter and asks him three times: Peter, “do you love me?” Peter responds three times, “You know I love you” (John 21:15-17). And Peter is completely healed by this encounter with mercy, transformed from being Peter the denier, to Peter who will bring the message of the mercy of God across the sea to Rome where he will die as a martyr. As Catholics, we refer, of course, to Peter as the first Pope; that means that the experience of mercy is in the DNA of the Papacy.
It is for this reason that, for Pope Francis, God’s mercy is the foundation of his vision of the Church. The Church is not a club for those who consider themselves perfect. Rather, as Pope Francis has said echoing the ancient tradition, the Church is a hospital for sinners in which all of us are getting better, becoming more whole by the gift of divine grace. And central to the mission of mercy in the Church is the sacrament of Confession, in which we experience in a personal and direct way the mercy and forgiveness of God, and are healed by his grace. Indeed, the prayer of absolution which is spoken in the sacrament of Confession by the priest, but in which Jesus himself forgives us, begins with the words “God, the father of mercies”.
I recently read and was deeply impressed by a short article by a woman who recounted her own experience of the sacrament of Confession. She begins very simply: “I went to Confession on Saturday. I think the last time I celebrated the sacrament in a traditional Saturday afternoon setting was more than a decade ago. When someone asked me why I was going, the answer was simple: I was compelled to go because of the Pope. Not because Pope Francis has asked Catholics to get back in the confessional, but because his recent interviews and heartfelt actions as pastor in chief have made me want to be a better person and a more fulfilled, better practicing Catholic. I’ve felt like I’ve not only been given hope for the church, but a challenge for myself…
…Every day, I hear from Catholics who, like me, are reconsidering their lives, their actions, their faith practice, all because of an Argentine priest who proclaims, ‘I am a sinner.’ The Pope isn’t getting this reaction by outlining a list of do’s and don’ts. Instead, the world’s parish priest proclaims the message of God’s mercy in such human terms one cannot help but listen. He lives a life so obviously influenced by Jesus that one cannot remain unaffected. It is almost as though, if you listen close enough, you can hear him say, without uttering a word, ‘Try this again; it will lead you to Jesus.’ This weekend,” she writes, “I did try it again, walking into a dimly lit confessional, getting on my knees and saying, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.’ And for the first time in a long time, it felt like home” (Renée Schafer Horton, “Finding a Home in the Confessional thanks to Pope Francis,” NCR Online, 10 October 2103).
In The Way of the Pilgrim, at the very beginning when the pilgrim meets with a holy man, an elder or in Russian a starets, the elder tells him that the practice of the prayer of the heart needs to be accompanied by Confession “for the inward process could not go on properly and successfully without the guidance of a teacher.” In Confession, the teacher is the Lord and the message is his mercy. That is what Pope Francis is trying to communicate to us in these first months of his pontificate.
Today, we have the pleasure of celebrating the Festival Mass in connection with the 62nd Wexford Festival Opera, and just as everyone who participates in this wonderful event will surely enjoy this experience, let us also, in our own lives, listen and respond to the music of God, the melody of his mercy.