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The Grace Only Great Sinners Have

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From heaven he jumped into the toxic sea in which we were drowning, taking on our nature in order to be able to push us to safety, and died in the process.

Father Roger J.

On the night Pope Francis was elected I was doing television interviews in Rome until nearly midnight. I returned to the hotel, filed a story, and then -- since a papal election is more stimulating than twenty espressos! -- decided to track down some of Cardinal Bergoglio's writings and speed-read them through the night.

I found, purchased and downloaded a copy of El Jesuita, the enlightening 2010 book-length interview that eventually was translated into English as Pope Francis: His Life in his Own Words. It was engrossing. At 3 in the morning I came across a passage that was so profound that I just had to stop reading. It beautifully presented who God is, who man is, and how loved he is. It summed up Cardinal Bergoglio's essential approach to the faith. And I believe it gives the key to unlock the reason why Pope Francis so eagerly desired this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

An authentically Christian discipleship, Cardinal Bergoglio said to interviewers Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin, begins with the recognition that we're sinners in need of salvation and the concomitant experience that that Savior looks on us with merciful love.

"For me, feeling oneself a sinner is one of the most beautiful things that can happen to a person, if it leads to its ultimate consequences" the future Pope Francis said, in sharp contrast to the affirmative pop psychologies of our age.

There's a reason why at the Easter Vigil, he asserted, we make St. Augustine's insight our own and sing in the Exultet, "O felix culpa," rejoicing in the "happy sin" that brought us to experience the love of the Redeemer.

"When a person becomes conscious that he is a sinner and is saved by Jesus," Cardinal Bergoglio affirmed, "he confesses this truth to himself and discovers the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field. He discovers the greatest thing in life: that there is someone who loves him profoundly, who gave his life for him."

He laments, however, that many Catholics have sadly not had this fundamental Christian experience.

"There are people who believe themselves to be good, who in some way have accepted the catechism and the Christian faith, but who do not have the experience of having been saved," he said.

He then gave a powerful metaphor of what the true experience of God's mercy is like.

"It's one thing when people tell us a story about someone's risking his life to save a boy drowning in the river. It's something else when I'm the one drowning and someone gives his life to save me!"

That's what Christ did for us to save us from the eternal watery grave of the deluge of sin. From heaven he jumped into the toxic sea in which we were drowning, taking on our nature in order to be able to push us to safety, and died in the process. Sometimes we focus so much on the happy ending of Christ's Resurrection that we can fail to appreciate the heroism and love of Calvary. If a stranger or family member gave his life to save ours, we would never be able to forget it and the rest of our life would be filled with reverential gratitude. That's the way we should approach Christ and what he did for us.

Unfortunately, the future pope said, "There are people to whom you tell this metaphor who don't see it, who don't want to see it, who don't want to know what happened to that boy, who always have escape hatches from the situation of drowning and who therefore lack the experience of who they are."

Then he unforgettably concluded: "I believe that only we great sinners have that grace."

To know who we are, to know who God is, to fathom the great love he has for us, we need to grasp that we're great sinners who have been saved by God.

This is the key to understand Pope Francis' self-identity.

When he was asked in his first papal interview, "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?," he replied, "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner... The best summary, the one that comes from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon" with love.

That's what his papal motto, Miserando atque Eligendo, indicates, referring to how he received his priestly calling in the very act of being looked upon with merciful love by God in the confessional as a 16-year-old.

That's how he responded when they formally asked him in the Sistine Chapel if he accepted his election as pontiff. Spontaneously in Latin, he replied, "I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in a spirit of penance, I accept."

This Jubilee of Mercy is a much-needed opportunity for us to rediscover with Pope Francis who we really are: not just sinners but great sinners -- but sinners greatly loved by God and saved.

Even though each of us confesses at the beginning of Mass, "I have greatly sinned... through my most grievous fault," many of us don't really mean it. We consider our sins "peccadillos," relative trifles. We convince ourselves that we're basically "good people," not serial killers, and so we think we have little need to come to receive God's mercy in the Sacrament of Penance. We have "escape hatches" from seeing ourselves submerged in sin and desperate for a divine rescue. And therefore we lack the true Christian understanding of God, ourselves, and the joy of redemption at the root of the Christian life.

Pope Francis has called this Jubilee to help all of us experience the jubilation of the Easter Vigil, to convince us of the "happy sins" that have brought us so wondrous a Redeemer, and to remind us that it is only "great sinners" who approach the font of God's mercy who will have such joy.

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.

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