How a Prostitute’s Story Taught Pope Francis the Meaning of Mercy

The encounter with a young mother, relayed in the Pope’s new book, brought home to him the importance of treating every human person with dignity and mercy, no matter their situation in life.

(photo: Lauren Cater/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis was a parish priest in Argentina, he met a mother with young children who had been abandoned by her husband.

She had no steady income. When odd jobs were scarce, she would prostitute herself in order to feed her children and provide for her family. During that time, she would visit the local parish, which tried to help her by offering food and material goods.

One day, during the Christmas season, the mother visited and requested to see the parish priest, Father Jorge Bergoglio. He thought she was going to thank him for the package of food the parish had sent to her.

“Did you receive it?” Father Bergoglio had asked her.

“Yes, yes, thank you for that, too,” the mother explained. “But I came here today to thank you because you never stopped calling me Señora.”

The Holy Father recalled this touching memory in the sixth chapter of The Name of God Is Mercy, a newly released book-length interview of Pope Francis by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli meant to “reveal the heart of Francis and his vision.”

This experience with the young mother profoundly touched Pope Francis, who said it taught him the importance of treating every human person with dignity and mercy, no matter their situation in life.

“Experiences like this teach you how important it is to welcome people delicately and not wound their dignity,” Pope Francis stated in the book.

“For her, the fact that the parish priest continued to call her Señora, even though he probably knew how she led her life during the months when she could not work, was as important — or perhaps even more important than — as the concrete help that we gave her,” the Holy Father said.

The Name of God Is Mercy, published Jan. 12, takes an in-depth look at Pope Francis’ vision of mercy and forgiveness, with nine chapters of candid questions-and-answers between Pope Francis and Tornielli.

Among other topics, the mercy-themed book further explains Pope Francis’ words “Who am I to judge?” and explores his thoughts on confession, his hopes for the Jubilee of Mercy and how to be open to God’s mercy.

Tornielli compiled the interview out of curiosity, wanting to know more about Pope Francis’ personal take on mercy and forgiveness. Through various stories told throughout the interview, such as the encounter with the prostitute, Pope Francis reveals that the most important thing for every man and woman is not that they should never fall — but that they should always get back up.

“For as long as we are alive it is always possible to start over; all we have to do is let Jesus embrace us and forgive us,” the Holy Father states in the book.

“There is medicine; there is healing. We only need to take a small step toward God, or at least express the desire to take it,” he continued, saying that “a tiny opening is enough.”