Soon after Pope Francis was elected, he was interviewed by the editor of Civilta Cattolica. The editor’s opening question was, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Apparently caught by surprise, the new Pope paused for a moment and then responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
Nine years after that first interview, we now see even more clearly the sincerity of the Pope’s response. It did not come from some feigned modesty or pa-humble effect, but from a deep awareness of his own sinfulness vis-a-vis the mercy of God. Thus, his motto, Miserando atque Eligendo (Miserable yet Chosen).
In today’s readings, we see the same honesty in Isaiah, Peter and Paul. Overwhelmed by the intense experience of God’s majesty and holiness, Isaiah could only say, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips…” In the same manner, after experiencing the power of Jesus’ words that effected the miraculous catch of fish, Peter fell at the knees of Jesus saying, “Leave me, Lord: I am a sinful man”. Paul, too, after experiencing Jesus’ apparition, presented himself to the Christian community as the least of the apostles. In fact, he considered himself unfit to be called an apostle for having persecuted the Church.
St. Augustine wrote a lovely prayer, which opens with: “Domine Jesu, noverim me, noverim te” (Lord Jesus, may I know myself, may I know you). We come to know ourselves only when we come to know God. In front of him, we see ourselves in our true proportion. For in the presence of an infinite God, we cannot fail to see our nothingness and insignificance; in the presence of his holiness, our sinfulness.
Our unworthiness, however, is not meant to discourage us or draw us away from God. On the contrary, it is an invitation for us to trust in him. He offers to purify us, as he did with Isaiah when he sent a seraph to cleanse his lips with the holy ember. He uplifts and strengthens our spirit, as he assured Peter, “Do not be afraid.” Paul felt so confirmed by God even in his weakness, that he could say, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
The overpowering and humbling experience of God constitutes the ground for God in choosing whom to send for his mission. God entrusts his healing and life-saving word only to those who have fathomed the depths of their own unworthiness and gained true knowledge of him and of themselves. Hence, Isaiah could readily respond to God’s call, “Whom shall I send?” Jesus sent Peter to be a “fisher of men” (and women), and Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles.
The story of these three great men is the story of each one of us. It is the story of our own call to missionary discipleship.
Every call is God’s initiative. It starts with a numinous experience by which God draws us into his mystical life. It can happen anytime and anywhere. It can happen in a sacred space like the temple, as in the case of Isaiah. It can happen while doing one’s usual work, as in the case of Peter. It can even happen while engaging in a misguided activity, as in the case of Paul who was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians.
The young Bergoglio heard his call in a most unexpected manner. On his way to join an outing with his barkada, he passed by a church and felt a “force” pushing him to enter and leading him to the confessional. After his confession, he decided to enter the seminary.
In matters of vocation, personal worthiness is not an issue. No one is worthy. What matters is God’s call to mission and our fidelity to it.
In his lecture on evangelization, the famous theologian, Bernard Haring, reminded his audience that the primary meaning of evangelization is to proclaim, not so much a message or a doctrine, but a person. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes… and touched with our hands… we now proclaim to you.” (1Jn 1:1,3) Commenting on this passage from John, he said that unless we have personally experienced God, we have nothing to proclaim. “And if you think you never had any,” he concluded, “pray, for goodness’ sake, for a God-experience.”
In truth, God reveals himself to us more often than we think for he is a God of revelation. Unfortunately, like Adam and Eve, it is often we who hide when he comes down to walk with us. (cf. Gen 3:8)*