Located in Rome’s Contarelli Chapel, in a separate alcove, there are three paintings of Saint Matthew by the artist Caravaggio (above). The life of Matthew, which was full of so many important moments from his time as a tax collector to his journeys with Jesus and the 12, is pared down to three basic scenes. To the left of the altar is The Calling of Matthew, just behind the altar is The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and to the right of the altar is The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, Combined, these three paintings they tell the tale of the quintessential Catholic-Christian life.
We who are baptized have each been called. The word vocation comes from the Latin vocare to be called. We are adopted, made new again, washed of our sin, and claimed for Christ as a priest, prophet and royal servant. We are called first and foremost to be an anointed one, a mini version of Jesus in the world, what Jesus called salt and light. Beyond our baptismal call and our mandate to spread and defend the Faith given in Confirmation, we are called to a particular state in life and then a particular way of giving ourselves to God and others in self-sacrificial love.
In Matthew’s case it was an audible voice calling. “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him”(Mt 9:9). More than any other Apostle, Matthew, as a despised tax collector, was the least likely to be thought of as worthy of that calling. What was Jesus’ point here? No one is worthy of being called to holiness. It is a free gift, a grace poured out on every person everywhere, what Vatican II calls, ‘the universal call to holiness’. Everyone is called, not everyone cooperates with the call. Matthew did. What has the Lord called me to do with my life? Do I cooperate with the call to holiness?
The scene behind the altar is Matthew's magnus opum, his greatest work: the Gospel in written form. Matthew’s calling included his call to be an evangelist not just an apostle. His life was the Gospel lived out each day and then recorded by hand. This work was not his own. When God calls us to a particular task, he sends us what we need to accomplish it. We are equipped and inspired to know the task and to carry it out. We lend our mind, heart and soul to the project and God does the rest. In Matthew’s case, we see the angel guiding his thoughts through divine inspiration, as he recounts the many scene’s in his Gospel. This is not ‘divine dictation’, he’s not just recording a voice that he hears. Matthew is having authentic human thoughts, but grace is perfecting nature in real time. The result is that we receive the Word of God in the words of Matthew. What is my magnus opum, my legacy, the great masterpiece of my life that I may give Jesus?
The final act, the martyrdom of Matthew is on the right. Legend has it that Saint Matthew was killed by the sword while saying Mass in Ethiopia. How in the world did he end up in Africa? We don’t have all the details. In this chapel, surrounding the holy altar of sacrifice, we just have these three scenes by Carravagio. The truth is, we don’t need to know. We don’t even need to know what prompted the man to kill him. The reason Matthew died in Ethiopia is because of his love for Christ. He went to the ends of the earth and gave everything including his last breath for Jesus. As Catholics, who revere St Matthew as a model of holiness, that’s all we need to know. What level of martyrdom am I open to? What cross must I carry?
So these three scenes encapsulate the Christian life. We are miserable tax-collector-like sinners, we are called, we get assistance and grace to carry out our mission and then we respond to God by freely giving our life over to him as an act of love. It may not end in a bloody martyrdom, but our Christian life is always sacrificial and it always entails a cross. With our last breath may we echo Matthew and say the words he prayed that day, “All glory and honor are yours almighty Father. Amen".
I am a life-long Catholic, husband, dad, teacher and former football coach. I've been teaching the Catholic Faith to young men, religious educators and catechists since 1998. My academic background, MA is in Theology and Catechetics. I am the creator of www.apexcatechetics.com, the home of high quality catechetical resources for those who teach the Catholic Faith.