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By Fr. G. Peter Irving III

2/16/2013 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (

Lent is that special time in the life of the Church when the call to conversion is turned up to maximum volume

The popular British singer-songwriter, Sting, once made this comment about his Catholic upbringing: "I was brought up as a Catholic and went to church every week and took the sacraments. It never really touched the core of my being." Without wishing to pronounce judgment on Sting or on anyone else (that's God's job), I cite these tragic words because they raise an important question: Why did it never really touch the core of his being?


By Fr. G. Peter Irving III

Catholic Online (

2/16/2013 (3 years ago)

Published in Year of Faith

Keywords: Fr. G. Peter Irving III, Holy Innocents Long Beach, St. Matthew, Sting, Conversion

LONG BEACH, CA (Catholic Online) - The account of the calling and conversion of Levi (St. Matthew) is mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Precisely six weeks ago at a Saturday Mass we heard St. Mark's telling of this story. Today we hear it again, but this time from St. Luke. In all three Gospels this momentous event in the life of Levi and in the life of the nascent Church is described with a paucity of words. Here is how today's Gospel describes it:

"After that [Jesus] went out and noticed a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, "Follow Me." And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him."

Here we have the dramatic conversion story of a notorious sinner compressed into a sound byte. But the economy of words with which Matthew's story is told is not intended to attenuate the immensity of this event. Instead, the brevity of this account magnifies the stunning spontaneity of a sinner's turning to Christ.

In the simplest of terms, Levi-Matthew was a "big fish." He was a publican, a tax collector, which made him a bad Jew, a turncoat, an agent of the enemy, namely the pagan Roman occupiers. St. Cyril of Alexandria explains that Levi was a "rapacious man, of unbridled desires after vain things, a lover of other men's goods, for this is the character of the publican."

But then he goes on to say, he was "snatched from the very worship of malice by Christ's call."

The immediacy of Matthew's response to Jesus' two-word invitation, "Follow me," has always fascinated me. Levi's job was to exact taxes from the Jewish populace for imperial Rome. The taxes were onerous and ridiculously exorbitant. He was a public sinner hated by his own people who lumped him together with prostitutes, adulterers and extortioners.

Over time Levi got more or less used to the unpleasant faces and the frequent words of contempt with which he was greeted at his taxation station. But the pay was very good and after a while in a job like this, one grows an extra layer of skin.

Then Jesus comes along and speaks those famous two words. Matthew gets up from his desk, he leaves everything right there and begins to follow Jesus, never looking back. One could spend endless hours contemplating the scene of this thrilling encounter between the majestic Christ and the pitiable sinner.

Regarding this, St. John Chrysostom writes: "Here mark both the power of the caller, and the obedience of him that was called. For he neither resisted nor wavered, but forthwith obeyed; and like the fishermen, he did not even wish to go into his own house that he might tell it to his friends."

The power of the caller! It only took seconds. As Matthew sat at his desk in the shadow of the incomparable Christ he had only to look into Jesus' penetrating eyes and hear his commanding voice and that was enough. With a clearness of mind and a boldness of spirit, he took that first and necessary step onto the road of an astonishing and altogether unpredictable conversion.

Surely, Levi did not become Matthew the Saint in an instant. Along with the other apostles he would spend three years in the company of the Lord leaning from His words and example. While he had made a decisive and indispensable break from his former way of life, he most certainly needed to struggle daily with the help of divine grace in order to grow in holiness. And, as we know, he remained faithful to the end, even to the point of shedding his blood.

The British Protestant evangelist, Alan Redpath, once famously said, "The conversion of a soul is the miracle of a moment. The manufacture of a saint is the task of a lifetime." That said, there cannot be any conversion without that first and indispensable step of contemplating the face of Christ and listening to Him, just as Levi-Matthew did.

Lent is that special time in the life of the Church when the call to conversion is turned up to maximum volume. Will I remain deaf to that call and my soul impervious to God's grace by failing to make room for Him in my daily life? Or will I allow Jesus entry into my world in the same way that Levi-Matthew did in order to be able to hear Him say to me, "Follow me?"

The popular British singer-songwriter, Sting, once made this comment about his Catholic upbringing: "I was brought up as a Catholic and went to church every week and took the sacraments. It never really touched the core of my being."

Without wishing to pronounce judgment on Sting or on anyone else (that's God's job), I cite these tragic words because they raise an important question: Why did it never really touch the core of his being? We know that if God "fails" to get through it is not the "fault" of God.

The God of love never ceases to call sinners. The question is, are we listening? In this season of conversion, I pray for myself and for all of us that we will take time to gaze upon the Crucified Lord and give Him permission to speak to our hearts. Then, and only then, will we be able to plant our feet firmly on the road that leads to true friendship with Christ and lasting conversion.

May Our Lady, Mother of Sorrows and Help of Christians, plead our cause before the Throne of Mercy.


Fr. G. Peter Irving is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is Pastor of Holy Innocents Church, Long Beach, California.


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