The Moment When God Called a Teenaged Pope Francis to be a Priest

Pope Francis’ witness to the faith over the last four years has influenced people around the world. His dedication to the poor and his passion to share the faith cause people to want to follow his example.

Have you ever wondered how it all started?

Like most people, Pope Francis’ faith developed in many ways and in many stages — but there is one unique moment he points to that completely changed his life and set him on a course for the priesthood and the papacy.

Read his story below to find out what happened and how you can follow his example as well.

In the early 1950s, Jorge Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) had a day off from school. He planned to do what most teenagers would do with a day off: meet up with his girlfriend and classmates to have a good time. On his way to meet up with his friends, he passed by his local parish and felt compelled to go inside. Later he would say, “I went in, I felt I had to go in — those things you feel inside and you don’t know what they are.”

As he walked inside of the Church, it was pretty dark, and he saw a priest whom he’d never seen before. Again, he felt compelled to action: “I felt like someone grabbed me from inside and took me to the confessional.” During this time in confession, the teenage boy had a profound experience with God’s mercy. It was so dramatic that he later described it as being knocked off a horse.

Instead of meeting up with his friends, he spent the rest of his day off from school in the church contemplating God’s mercy. The moment was so defining for him that he was convinced he was called to be a priest. Just a few years later, this young man dreamed of becoming a missionary priest to Japan and joined the Jesuit order. Eventually, he would become a bishop, then a cardinal — and eventually, Pope Francis.

September 21

Pope Francis’ encounter in the confessional that day was a defining moment of his life and one that he continues to live out to this day. The date of the event was September 21, the feast of St. Matthew. Pope Francis often compares his own conversion to Jesus’ call of the Apostle Matthew (Mt. 9:9 – 13). Pope Francis’ papal motto is “miserando atque eligendo,” which roughly translates to “through the eyes of mercy Jesus chose him,” a phrase made by the scholastic scholar Venerable Bede on conversion of St. Matthew.

Often when Pope Francis would travel to Rome as a bishop or cardinal, he would pray in a small inconspicuous chapel called San Luigi of France. In this church, Pope Francis would fix his gaze on one particular painting: “The Call of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio.

The Call of St. Matthew by Caravaggio (1599-1600)

This painting depicts the moment that Jesus called St. Matthew to follow Him. Jesus enters the door with St. Peter, and light streams behind them as they point to the tax-collector. Matthew is sitting at a rugged wooden table with his fellow tax collectors. Half the people around the table are so consumed in counting their money that they don’t even notice the presence of our Lord. The other half of the table, including St. Matthew, make eye contact with the new arrivals. As Matthew looks at Jesus, he realizes that he has a decision before him: follow Jesus or choose to hold on to his former lifestyle.

Pope Francis, a New St. Matthew

Pope Francis readily identifies with St. Matthew: “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him.” Our Holy Father continues, “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’” He continues to describe why St. Matthew decides to give in by saying, “the surprise of being loved overcomes him.” Despite his sins and attachments to the riches of his world, St. Matthew chooses to accept Jesus’ mercy and follow him. It seems the logic behind this painting could have gone into Pope Francis’ response upon his acceptance of the papacy: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What Are You Still Holding Onto?

Pope Francis’ encounter and commentary on his own conversion reminds us of our own. Have you had that moment of deep encounter and conversion with Jesus? How did you experience His love? What did He ask you to let go of?

Now, think of your life today. When is the last time you encountered Him? What are you still holding onto that you need to let go of?

If you need that encounter with Jesus, here are two recommendations:

1. Read through the passage in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 9:9 – 13).

How do you identify with St. Matthew? Matthew has to make a decision about his riches; what do you still hold on to? How can Jesus meet you there?

2. Go to confession.

Pope Francis tells us, “He awaits you in the sacrament of Penance, with his mercy he will cure all the wounds caused by sin. Do not be afraid to ask God’s forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving us, like a father who loves us. God is pure mercy!” (Address, World Youth Day, July 25, 2013)

Remember, one encounter with Jesus can change the world. Do not be afraid to have that encounter with Him today.

Want to help others have an encounter with Jesus? Check out the new version of FOCUS’ The Crux Bible study!

Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter is the Executive Director of Programming at Amazing Parish. He previously served with FOCUS for 11 years as a missionary and Sr. Director of Curriculum. Kevin holds a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Benedictine College and a master’s degree in Sacred Scripture from the Augustine Institute. He is the author of numerous FOCUS resources and Bible studies and several books, including Dating Detox with his wife Lisa and Called: Becoming a Disciple in a Post-Christian World. Kevin currently resides in Denver, CO with his wife, Lisa, and their children.

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