The Caravaggio effect
“If you have time,” Pope Francis said during his encounter with thousands of young people last Jan. 18 at the University of Santo Tomas, “go see the picture that Caravaggio painted of this scene.”
By “this scene,” he meant Jesus calling the tax collector Matthew to come and follow him. This surprise invitation, as narrated in the Gospel (Matthew 9:9), caused a stir among the self-righteous because Jesus was consorting and eating with the so-called scum of society. And in the case of Matthew, Jesus even called him to join his team, his ragtag band of apostles.
The Pope painted his own scene to stress a point: that God springs surprises and we must allow ourselves to be surprised.
“The important thing is to let yourselves be loved by him,” he said in his native Spanish, which he used when he wanted to strongly express something. In that encounter with the youth from all over the country, Pope Francis put aside his prepared speech in English and spoke from the heart with passion and joy.
“Real love is opening yourselves to the love that wants to come to you, which causes surprise in you. God is a God of surprises.” I thought of God calling in gentle and sometimes dramatic ways—calling us by name, calling to mission, but first, to conversion. In his homilies since Day One of his visit, Pope Francis had been directly pointing to areas where we needed conversion.
The baroque-era oil painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) that the Pope was referring to is “The Calling of St. Matthew” (a huge 322 x 340 centimeters) that shows Jesus bursting into what looks like a dimly lit backroom where several men are seated. Jesus stretches out his hand toward someone who looks befuddled, as if asking, “Who, me?”
(That room reminds me of that stolen video footage that went viral and shook a presidency that eventually crashed.)
In the painting, Peter (it must be him), ever the protestor, stands in the way and, like the Pharisees, might be asking, “Jeez, why him?” In the words of Pope Francis: “This one? He’s no good. And he keeps money to himself. But the surprise of being loved overcomes Matthew and he follows Jesus.”
This Caravaggio masterpiece, along with “The Conversion of St. Matthew” and “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew,” hangs in the church of the congregation of San Luigi dei Francesco in Rome. The Pope must have gazed upon it during one of his Roman visits before he became pope and bishop of Rome. Why did Caravaggio suddenly cross his mind? I wondered. The painting must have had an impact on him.
Caravaggio was not himself a straight-and-narrow-path guy, but he painted many with religious themes. His style would have obvious influence on the likes of Rembrandt and other Caravaggisti of a later era. But that is another story.
In the Bible scene that Caravaggio painted, Jesus chides his critics: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ I did not come to call the righteous but the sinners.”
“Mercy and compassion” was the theme of Pope Francis’ four-day visit to the Philippines that ended last Jan. 19.
The Pope continues Matthew’s conversion story: “That day, when Matthew left his home, said goodbye to his wife, he never thought he was going to come back without money, and concerned about how to have such a big feast to prepare… for him who had loved him first, who had surprised Matthew with something very special, more important than all the money that he had.” (A translation of the Pope’s Spanish narration)
But because “he loved us first, he awaits us with a surprise.” As God surprised Matthew, so would God’s surprises “shake the ground from under your feet and make you unsure. But they move us forward in the right direction. Real love leads you to spend yourself… even at the risk of having your hands empty.”
He then segued into St. Francis, his namesake, who “died with empty hands, empty pockets, but with a very full heart.” He exhorted us: “Think well, feel well, do well. Be wise, allow yourselves to be surprised by the love of God.”
But although the story of Matthew’s calling and conversion did not come up in the Pope’s other speeches and homilies, it could very well have applied even more strongly when he spoke to the so-called “young once,” those in high positions of power who can make things happen, who can do good and do badly as well.
At his first address to government officials and the diplomatic corps in Malacañang, the Pope said: “More than ever, [it is] necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good… The great biblical tradition … bids us to break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring and, indeed, scandalous social inequities. Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires and conversion of mind and heart.”
The Philippine bishops had asked the Pope that 2015 be proclaimed “The Year of the Poor.”
The Pope also rallied the bishops, priests and religious: “The Gospel is also a summons to conversion, to an examination of our consciences, as individuals and as a people… [to] combat the causes of the deeply rooted inequality and injustice that mar the face of Filipino society, plainly contradicting the teaching of Christ.” Christians should “live lives of honesty, integrity and concern for the common good.”
So, as Pope Francis said, when you are in Rome, gaze upon that Caravaggio painting and contemplate the meaning of it. Or you can go to the Internet; it is only a click away. “Be quiet,” as he reminded us. Listen to the call. Hearken and heed.
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