by Fr. Victor Szczurek, O.Praem.
We know that Our Blessed Mother and Sts. Joseph and John the Baptist never committed any personal sins; but there are many other saints in the Church who are often portrayed as if they never sinned. Take someone like St. Bernard or St. Maria Goretti; and there are many many others. You never hear about any of their sins. And then there are some other saints who seem like, no matter how holy they turned out to be, they just cannot live down their sinful past.
Take for instance, St. Dismas: the first canonized saint, promised paradise by our Savior Himself, “subito santo”; and yet tradition names him the “Good Thief,” lest you forget his evil past. St. Mary Magdalene is another one. Poor Mary has the singular privilege of being commemorated by the Church as “penitent.” That already tells you something. Even Sacred
Scripture has some unflattering things to say about her, referring to her as the one “from whom 7 demons had gone out” [Lk 8:2]; and she is often depicted in art as…well…looking less than angelic, let’s say. Speaking of sacred art: St. Peter, one of the greatest saints, is depicted countless times in the catacombs with the cock that crowed when he betrayed our Lord. Nice. The first pope, a martyr, “the Rock”; and even he couldn’t seem to get others to forget his past.
Today’s saint, St. Matthew, suffers (so to speak) from that same scarlet letter. Often known as “Matthew the Tax Collector,” Holy Mother Church, in what almost seems like a touch of cruel sarcasm, has made him the patron saint of bankers. You could almost hear him exclaiming from heaven, “But I gave all that up, why keep reminding everyone about my past?”
We all know the saying, “There is no saint without a past; no sinner without a future.” It seems that Mother Church likes to depict some of her saints, like Matthew the Tax Collector, employing the chiaro-oscuro technique, as it were (as did Caravaggio in painting St. Matthew)— that is, allowing the brilliance of their sanctity to shine out all the more by portraying it against the darkness of their past sins. It’s as if she is saying to us, “Look at these men and women, look at their holiness; and when you consider it against the backdrop of their dark past, it is all the more wonderful. And now look at your awful selves and be filled with the hope that you can someday be like they are now.” This is a great consolation, but it also comes with a challenge.
The challenge: We all know how easy it is to fall into anger and hatred these days, when we see so much evil around us; but what a beautiful brilliance God can create against this gloomy backdrop, if we ask Him. For instance, the next time someone…oh…let’s say a certain Speaker of the House appears on your favorite news site, sporting her new coif; instead of letting it drive your blood pressure through the roof, pray for her conversion. You never know, a hundred years from now the Church could be celebrating the “Feast of St. Nancy,” Triplex Feast, First Class, with an Octave. Why not? It happened to Matthew the Tax Collector; it happened to Mary Magdalene. If we think that it’s not possible, then we are still very far from the Kingdom of God. And what about that family member, confrere, or person you work with? When you look at them, do you focus on their dark past or even their dark present? Much better would it be if you considered the beautiful splendor which the Divine Artist wants to bring forth from that darkness, and then strove to be His instrument in this act of mercy.
Tax collectors were known for being pretty shady characters, to put it mildly. They were hated by pretty much everyone: seen as cheaters, liars, swindlers, and all-round scum bags. Most people wouldn’t even think of trying to show them any love. Lucky for St. Matthew, Christ wasn’t one of these people.
Yes, with very few exceptions, the Communion of Saints is made up of quite a crowd of hoodlums; but their dark past should move us all the more to admire the brilliance of their holiness and to pray for those who still walk in darkness.
St. Matthew, former tax collector, cheater, liar, swindler, and all-round scum bag, but now great saint of the Church, Pray for us!
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