When the papal conclave elected Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope in 2013, he was asked if he accepted the job as Supreme Pontiff, to which he replied: “I am a great sinner. Trusting in the mercy and patience of God in suffering, I accept.” After he became Pope, whenever people asked: “Who Is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” his reply was simple: “I am a sinner.”
This humble recognition by the leader of the Catholic Church can also be seen at the very beginnings of Christianity. When the apostle Peter first encountered Jesus after witnessing the great catch of fish, his first response was: ‘Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’. And we know that, despite this admission and his later failures, Jesus was to entrust Peter still with the care of his flock. Similarly, St Paul, a once fanatical persecutor of the Christian Faith, was to be commissioned by Jesus to take the Gospel to the pagan world. We know too that, because of his own conversion experience, Paul would later be able to proclaim that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ and then add: ‘of whom I am the worst’.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we can see the consequences of a sinful life. The fate of the younger son of the parable is shown when disaster hits: he had to hire himself out, it says, to ‘feed the pigs’ and ‘no one offered him anything’. Thankfully the younger son ‘came to his senses’, but there is no angry or vindictive father waiting for him. Instead, there is a great ‘welcome’ and ‘celebration’, for the one who was ‘lost’ is back with his father.
St Paul too was one who, as he himself admits, ‘had been acting in ignorance’ doing everything he could to oppose the name of Jesus and his followers. But when God decided to put a stop to Paul’s persecution, Jesus was not out for revenge, but was ‘merciful’ to him. What happened to Paul convinced him that Jesus came to save ‘people like him’ and that Paul was to become an ‘example’ of God’s ‘inexhaustible patience’ for everyone.
God had already declared through the prophet Ezequiel:
‘Do you think that I like to see wicked people die?’ says the Lord, ‘Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.’
And that’s why Jesus annoyed the scribes and Pharisees so much because he ‘welcomed’ sinners and ate with them. When these ‘sinners’ met Jesus their lives were transformed – now they could experience his mercy and find salvation. For Jesus, these were the ones who were ‘lost’ – who were ‘dead’ like the prodigal son.
Just like the angry elder son of the parable, the scribes and the Pharisees resented this ‘welcome’ for sinners whom they had excluded. But this condemnation of others would eventually turn against them, for Jesus warned that ‘tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the Kingdom of God before you’ – because they believed the message and they repented, something that the scribes and Pharisees were not prepared to do.
So the mission of Jesus was nothing to do with retribution: ‘For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.’ Now we see why Pope Francis answered the reporters with the question: ‘Who am I to judge?’
-Deacon Martin Farrell