“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
In his recent document on the call to holiness in today’s world (par. 95-109), Pope Francis describes these words from the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew (vv. 35-36) as the great ultimate, the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged. The leader of the Catholic Church is aware that these uncompromising demands of Jesus involve a constant and healthy unease; nonetheless, he invites all Christians to acknowledge and accept them in a spirit of genuine openness, without any ifs or buts that could lessen their force.
Pope Francis observes that whoever tries to embody these words of Jesus, stirs away from two harmful temptations or errors that strike at the heart of the Gospel. The first temptation is to separate the demands of mercy and charity from a personal relationship with the Lord and from openness to His grace. This error at times makes people believe that union with God detracts them from a passionate and effective commitment to their neighbours. For the Pope called from “the ends of the earth”, the Christian community then becomes a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism.
The other detrimental temptation is found in an ideal of holiness that ignores the cry of the poor, and belittles or relativises social engagement, often seeing it as superficial, worldly or populist. In this light, Gaudete et Exsultate echoes the words of St John Paul II: “if we truly start out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he himself wished to be identified” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 302).
Like his predecessor, Francis is convinced that holiness is not about swooning in mystic rapture. For this reason, he suggests that the best way to discern whether our prayer is authentic is to judge to what extent our life is being transformed in the light of mercy.
Whoever tries to embody these words of Jesus, stirs away from two harmful temptations or errors
Recalling the parable of the Good Samaritan, he observes: “If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?”
The words of Jesus in Chapter 25 of the Gospel according to Matthew are straightforward, practical and valid for everyone. If we take them seriously, they will benefit us. They will make us genuinely happy and lead us to salvation. Pope Francis recommends that we re-read them frequently, refer back to them, pray with them and try to embody them. He also writes that they can be an object of study, but only to help us better live the Gospel in our daily lives – because Christianity is meant, above all, to be put into practice.
Fr Kevin Schembri is a member of staff at the Faculty of Theology and the Ecclesiastical Tribunal.
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