When Pope Francis was asked, in an interview, ‘Who is Jorge Maria Bergoglio?’ he simply said ‘I am a sinner’. Then he added, ‘I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon’. This sounds strange, coming from the man we call ‘His Holiness’, but there is no contradiction between being holy and acknowledging that we are sinners who need God’s mercy. We cannot be holy without recognising our sinfulness, and the holier we become, the more clearly we will see our need of forgiveness. That is why the tax collector in the Gospel goes home ‘at rights with God’ while the Pharisee, who has spent his time in the temple praising his own goodness, does not.
The Pharisee thinks that by making the right donations, wearing the right clothes, sitting in the right seat and saying the right prayers, he has become righteous, and so he has no need of forgiveness, in fact no need of God at all. Although his prayer begins ‘I thank you, God’ it is really addressed to himself.
The Pharisee’s delusion about himself also leads him into a warped view of everyone else. Like everyone who is self-righteous (as distinct from being ‘at rights with God’), he needs to look down on other people, in order to bolster his own false sense of superiority, and so he tells himself that he is not like the rest of humanity: he despises them.
A person who is really holy is in love with God and shares God’s unconditional love for everything and everyone that God has created. Thomas Merton, a great spiritual writer, was suddenly overwhelmed one day, on a crowded street corner, with the realisation that he loved all these people, that they were his and he was theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though they were total strangers, and he said it was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation: ‘This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in these words: “Thank God, thank God, that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.”