Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon: From the unborn child to the terminal patient, God doesn't want to know what we own, but who we are

Dedication of the Abbatial Church
Missa Terribilis

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
(Fontgombault, October 12, 2014)


Quærebat videre Jesum, quis esset.
He sought to see Jesus, Who He was. (Lk 19:3)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,

God has wanted that throughout centuries the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax-gatherer of Jericho, should reach us. The second Vatican Council Constitution Dei Verbum teaches concerning Holy Scripture: In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (n. 11) The Constitution also teaches: The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. (n. 11)

Meditation of Holy Scriptures, also known as lectio divina, therefore implies that we should seek which message God has wanted to convey through the inspired words, so as to put it into practice for the sake of our salvation. Reading the Gospels, a practice so dear to Pope Francis that he never fails to remind us that every Christian should carry within easy reach a copy of them in his pocket or his bag, reading the Gospels does not mean casting a perfunctory glance at an already known text. It should rather be an in-depth reading which lets the heart be suffused by the light of the Holy Ghost and thus bears fruits.

The story of Zacchaeus is the story of a conversion. What is the first hint of this conversion? Zacchaeus is a tax-gatherer. He takes from the goods of other people to hand them on to the Roman occupying forces for them to repair roads, to keep up the army and the Civil Service. But Zacchaeus is overzealous and does not limit himself to a just levy. The very fact that he should offer Jesus to pay the wronged taxpayer back fourfold what he had unjustly levied, tends to show that there were shady parts in his accounts…

To levy taxes Zacchaeus had to get information on what his compatriots’ goods were. To him men were of value insofar as they possessed goods. When he saw somebody, he merely asked: “What does he have? What does he possess?” When he learnt that Jesus was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus decided to go and glance at Him, even though he did not even hope he could speak to Him or touch Him. He was too small. The Gospel says that he sought to see “Who He was”. That was a new question for him. For the first time he did not seek to know what this man had, but who he was.
The conversion of a man, of a country, begins precisely when arises in his heart before someone else the simple question, “Who is he?” Not, “What does he have?”, “What does he own that might make me richer?” but, “Who is he?”

If you downgrade someone to what he has, you are already coveting his goods, you are considering him as a means for your own pleasure, you give up all hope of a true encounter. Zacchaeus understands this and converts. He does not seek to know what Jesus owns, but Who is Jesus, and Jesus answers the tax-gatherer beyond his expectations. God does not give something which belongs to Him, a handout of God. No, God has not given a handout to Zacchaeus, God has given Himself to him, He has entered his house.

It is essential to know which is the reason that sets a man on the path of God. God has nothing, He is. God is the greatest of the poor, for He has nothing but Himself. God has nothing to offer us which might fulfill our craving for thrills, our yearning for pleasure. God is disappointing and will always remain so for those who will not seek what He is.

While St. Thomas Aquinas was praying before a crucifix, on an early morning in the San Nicola chapel in Naples, the sacristan of the church overheard a dialogue. Thomas was anxiously asking whether what he had written on the mysteries of the faith was correct. And the Crucified answered: “Thou hast well spoken of Me, Thomas. What shall thy reward be?” And Thomas’s answer is that which the friends of Jesus should always give: “Nothing but Thee, o Lord!”

What is true of the eyes with which we must look at God, is true as well of the eyes with which we must look at others. The consumer society, according to its name, focuses on what other people have, on what in them can be consumed. It gives up considering what they are, or at least it reduces what they are to what they have. The next step is very close and it consists in deducing that he who does not have — for instance, the unborn child in his mother’s womb — is not; that he who has nothing to give — for instance a sick person in terminal stage of cancer — is of no interest whatsoever; and even more, that he who would bring nothing but suffering would not deserve to be.

This is a matter for conversion: purifying our look on other people, allowing ourselves to be fascinated by the mystery of being, this is what transfigures our lives. The words of the introit have reminded us that “terrible is this place; this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven”. What do we feel when we enter a church? If a church is the house of God, He wants all the more to dwell in our souls. The fascination before the mystery of being lights up the look with which Jesus looks at the lame, the cripple, the poor in body and soul. All of them are called to become children of God. Are we worth more than they are?

No indeed. Neither are we worth less, nor is our neighbour, nor for that matter our enemy. According to the teaching of Dei Verbum, Revelation has been given “for the salvation of all nations” (n. 7). The message of Zacchaeus is thus meant not only for men but for nations as well. Societies must strive to understand what man is, in order to be able to promulgate laws which will be effectively ordered to the prosperity of what he has. Around the Pope the members of the Synod reflect on what family is; let us pray that the world should receive the renewed proclamation, the good news of the family.

Yesterday and today has been taking place around the abbey the pilgrimage of those “who serve life and pray for it.” Let us join them, let us unite to their prayer so that all, men and women, sick persons and medical staff, should respect and acknowledge God’s wonderful gift of life.

May the example of Zacchaeus convert our hearts. With Mary, let us secretly ponder these things. In the radiance of her motherly look, let us humbly yet uncompromisingly ask ourselves the fundamental question: What is the meaning of my life? Do I seek to have or to be? May the Lord grant us to discern within ourselves and in each man the mystery and worth of being as a gift of God.