While papal books, including interview books, have become rather routine since 1994’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the latest entry in the genre, Pope Francis’ The Name of God Is Mercy, is singular.
It’s not a survey of the state of the Gospel in the contemporary world, nor is it an examination of various pressing issues within the Church. Rather, it’s a brief book about one important thing — revitalizing the sacrament of confession.
Pope Francis’ pastoral approach heavily borrows from the venerable principle well known to teachers, namely that learning comes from repetition. Anyone who read the August 2013 interview granted by the Holy Father to Jesuit magazines, or follows his daily homilies at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, will find nothing new here.
Indeed, there is less in this book-length interview with Andrea Tornielli — the veteran Vatican reporter who is the favored conduit for leaks from Francis’ inner circle — than in many other, albeit shorter, press interviews. But that laser-like focus gives the book its urgency — and, hopefully, its impact.
Pope Francis has three principal themes for his pontificate: the essential missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, radical solidarity with the poor and suffering, and the primacy of mercy in our encounter with God. The Name of God Is Mercy focused on the third, and even then, not on the nature of mercy as an attribute of God, which is an interesting theological question. (How is mercy an attribute of God, given that there is no sin, and therefore no forgiveness, in the Trinity?) Here, rather, the Holy Father restricts himself to our experience of mercy in the forgiveness of sins, and confession in particular.
More than anything, the book reads like the notes of a gifted retreat master exhorting his retreatants to make a good confession. If the Jubilee Year of Mercy is thought of as the Holy Father taking the Church on a retreat, this book is the retreat conference given before confessions are available — complete with practical advice for both confessors and penitents.
There is a striking rhetorical shift here from the Holy Father, who customarily lambastes priests in sharp language for poor confessional practice. Instead, the book opens with the Pope recalling several heroic confessors and reflects on his own experience of what he has learned in the confessional.
For penitents, Francis assures them of the superabundance of God’s mercy, but also cautions them against using the confessional like a “dry cleaner,” where stains are routinely removed but there is no conversion of heart and behavior.
The target audience of the Tornielli interview is those who are aware of their sinfulness but distant from the sacraments, perhaps apprehensive or even fearful about returning. This book would give them encouragement and assurance; a jubilee year project might be to get the book into the hands of such people. The interview, at 100 generously spaced pages, can be read in one sitting, a few hours at most, so it is not burdensome to read.
As Francis repeatedly draws upon his personal experiences, it highlights a fundamental aspect of how the Holy Father looks at the world and brings to light the Argentinian experience that shaped his views.
“Humanity is wounded, deeply wounded,” Pope Francis says in response to a question about why humanity needs mercy. “Either it does not know how to cure its wounds or it believes that it’s not possible to cure them.”
That is absolutely foundational to the Holy Father’s thinking. A wounded humanity, despairing over its wounds, needs, above all, a Church that “binds up the wounds.” That’s why Francis proposes the image of the Church as a “field hospital,” which approaches the bleeding where they lie, weakened by their wounds, and administers that first aid that is so urgently desired.
There is an alternative view. There is the possibility of a humanity which does not consider itself wounded at all and regards its wounds not as wounds at all, but as marks of strength. Such a humanity does not welcome the doctors of the field hospital on the battlefield, but resents the intrusion of a judgmental fitness trainer into the living room where everyone is playing video games. Pope Francis acknowledges this other possibility in a passing remark that invites further questioning, but Tornielli does not pursue it.
“Pius XII, more than half a century ago, said that the tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of sin, the awareness of sin,” Pope Francis says. “Today we add further to the tragedy by considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: We don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.”
The drama at the heart of the jubilee year — and by extension his entire pontificate — is just that: Pope Francis believes the Church lacks in offering mercy to a world desperately in need of it, while the world thinks it doesn’t need it at all. It would have been fascinating to explore this contrast more deeply, especially in the light of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit precisely to “convince the world about sin and judgment” (John 16:8).
Interview books are autobiographical, and The Name of God Is Mercy gives us a sense of the Argentinian Church in which Jorge Bergoglio lived his entire life. It is not a pretty picture. There are stories here — a priest asking for a $5,000 bribe for an annulment; another refusing entry to the church for the coffin of an unbaptized baby; an employer who defrauds his workers; the crime boss who is ostentatiously pious; abandoned mothers resorting to prostitution to feed their starving children — that clearly weigh upon the Holy Father’s heart.
Against this background, the origins of his frequent broadsides against a stone-throwing clergy and an externally observant but corrupt laity become clear. Indeed, despite his insistence that mercy is always available to everyone, Francis also speaks about the corrupt who put themselves beyond God’s mercy.
“The corrupt man is so closed off and contented in the complacency of his self-sufficiency that he does not allow himself to be called into question by anything or anyone,” Francis says.
A question approached, but not answered, in this exhortative jubilee book is whether contemporary culture itself has become corrupt, a consequence of its losing its sense of sin, and consequently its need for mercy.
Father Raymond J. De Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.
He has been appointed to serve as a jubilee year “missionary of mercy” by the
Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.