Pope Francis’ Conversation on Mercy

‘This is a book in which the Pope opens his heart, taking us by the arm to enter into the great mercy of God,’ explained Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Pope Francis with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli during the book debut of The Name of God Is Mercy on Jan. 12.
Pope Francis with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli during the book debut of The Name of God Is Mercy on Jan. 12. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — A book-length interview with Pope Francis, in which he expounds on his vision of Divine Mercy, was launched today at a festive presentation in Rome.

The Name of God Is Mercy, published Tuesday in 86 countries, is an exchange between Vaticanist Andrea Tornielli and the Holy Father, who draws on memories from his youth and his experiences as a priest to explain why “mercy is the first attribute of God.” It has been published to coincide with the Jubilee of Mercy, which began Dec. 8.

“This is a book in which the Pope opens his heart, taking us by the arm to enter into the great mercy of God,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told a throng of reporters in the main hall of the Patristic Institute Augustinianum near the Vatican.

The Name of God Is Mercy is not an interview that “covers the field on all the burning questions of the world,” Cardinal Parolin said. “Those who are seeking such revelations might perhaps be disappointed.” The book, instead, explores “the great mystery of the mercy of God.”

Tornielli told the Register that he hopes the book will “really help people to understand the message of mercy and forgiveness that is at the heart of the Christian message.” He also said he hoped the book would show people that it’s “possible to restart one’s life only if we’re able to humble ourselves and recognize the need to be forgiven.”

He said he believed that is at the core of the message of mercy, adding he hopes the book will help “the Pope to speak to the hearts of people.” 


‘The Time for Mercy’

Divided into nine chapters, Pope Francis’ book begins by explaining why, for him, the centrality of mercy in the life of the Church “is Jesus’ most important message.” It is a conviction that has “slowly evolved over the years,” he says, adding that he believes this is the “time for mercy,” for the Church to show “her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded.”

He frequently underlines this theme, describing humanity at one point as “wounded, deeply wounded,” and in need of a Church that “does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors,” but “looks for them on the streets” to make them “feel loved.”

The Holy Father said the idea for a jubilee year came through prayer, reflecting on the teachings of his predecessors and thinking of the Church as a “field hospital,” where treatment is given “above all to those who are most wounded.” He reiterates how Jesus came “not for those who were good,” but for sinners — the sick.

Turning to his childhood, the Pope recalls how, at age 17, he felt he had been abandoned when his confessor died: “I had lost a person who helped me feel the mercy of God.” He remembers two other particularly merciful confessors and words from St. Francis de Sales, quoted in a homily of Cardinal Albino Luciani (later Pope John Paul I), in which he said if you see a little donkey who has fallen, you don’t use a “stick to beat it, poor little thing,” but help it to take to the road again and to pay more attention next time.

The Holy Father expounds on the limitless generosity of God in bestowing mercy — an important factor for humanity that “does not know how to cure its wounds” or thinks they are incurable. He says it’s not just social ills, poverty and social exclusion; relativism also “wounds people.”

And he refers to Pope Pius XII, who said the tragedy of our age was that it had lost a sense of sin. “We don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption,” Francis says, noting how so many people consult psychics and fortune-tellers instead.

“The love of God exists even for those who are not disposed to receive it,” the Pope continues, urging confessors to be “tender with these people; do not push them away. People are suffering.” Francis recalls hearing confessions, including the time when an elderly lady in Buenos Aires told him that “the Lord forgives everything.” He asked her, “How do you know?” to which she replied: “If the Lord didn’t forgive everything, our world would not exist.”


Advice for Confessors

As a confessor, the Pope says he always “tried to find a crack, just a tiny opening, so that I can pry open that door and grant forgiveness and mercy.” He later explains that God “waits for us to concede him only the smallest glimmer of space so he can enact his forgiveness and his charity within us.” Just going to confession, he says, shows “an initiation of repentance, even if it is not conscious.” And he adds that anyone who confesses “does well to feel shame for his sins: Shame is a grace we ask for; it is good, positive, because it makes us humble.”

But he stresses that the confessional should not be analogous to a “dry cleaner.” To view sin as just a stain that needs cleaning away is “hypocrisy,” he says. “Sin is more than a stain. Sin is a wound; it needs to be treated, healed.” He also explains why priests should not treat the confessional like a torture chamber: Confessors, he says, should not be “excessively curious,” which he sees as “unhealthy.”

Francis denies it’s unusual to for him to so freely admit to being a sinner as Pope, and he gives an example from Pope Paul VI, who said: “I am nothing; I am wretched,” and John Paul I, who said he had been chosen because the Lord preferred certain things not be “engraved in bronze or marble, but in the dust,” so that if the writing remained, it could only be due to God.

The Holy Father speaks of being “very attached” to prisoners, because of his own awareness of being a sinner, and he thinks he could so easily be in their shoes. He also recalls the “overabundant mercy” shown in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and how the elder son’s reaction is “human,” but the mercy of God “divine.”

He says the Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth, but at the same time embraces the sinner, who “recognizes himself as such.” No human sin, however serious, can “prevail over or limit mercy,” the Pope goes on to say. “The Church does not exist to condemn people, but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy,” he says, adding that her task is to “help people perceive that there are no situations that they cannot get out of.”


Explanations of Earlier Remarks

Tornielli asks the Pope to explain his famous “Who am I to judge?” remark in the context of homosexuals — a quote often taken out of context. He says he was paraphrasing the Catechism, which says they should be “treated with delicacy and not be marginalized,” adding that he was glad to be talking about homosexual people because “before all else” comes a person’s human dignity, and “people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies.”

The Pope then explains his frequent admonishments of “scholars of the law,” comparing them to the healthy that needed protection from lepers in the New Testament. Jesus went out and touched the leper, bringing him back into the community, the Pope says. He then describes a dichotomy, saying that on the one hand there is the fear of losing the just and the saved and on the other is the desire to save sinners, the lost. The latter is the logic of God; the former is the logic of the “scholars of the law.” 

“We must enter the darkness, the night where so many of our brothers live,” the Pope exhorts, adding that caring for outcasts doesn’t mean “letting the wolves attack the flock.” Catholics must avoid stone-throwing, and scholars of the law “often” have a “kind of hypocrisy in them,” the Pope says. They only know “how to close doors and draw boundaries,” leading them to lose the “sense of awe for salvation.”

“At times I have surprised myself by thinking that a few very rigid people would do well to slip a little, so that they could remember that they are sinners, and thus meet Jesus,” the Pope says. He adds that although mercy is the “first attribute” of God, “theological reflections on doctrine or mercy may then follow, but let us not forget that mercy is doctrine. Even so, I love saying: Mercy is true.”

For himself, the Pope said, Catholic doctrine is taking “small steps in the midst of great limitations.”


Two Ways of Erring

Tornielli told the Register there is “not an emphasis” in the book on chastising those concerned with upholding doctrine, contrary to some media interpretations, but the Pope is simply trying to explain the error of “two different ways”: the believer as a rigid “doctor of the law” on one side and on the other the “attitude of a progressive pastor.” Instead, what he is upholding is “the attitude of Jesus, who is going beyond these categories, and he explains very well that this is in the Gospel,” Tornielli said.

The Pope also warns against corruption in the book, saying it can become a “mental habit,” leading to no longer feeling “the need for forgiveness and mercy,” but instead leading to self-justification.

The book closes with a chapter on the need for mercy and compassion to “conquer the globalization of indifference” and a call on every believer to open his heart to the mercy of God, to be merciful to others and act on the seven corporal works of mercy, especially concerning the marginalized.

“By welcoming a marginalized person whose body is wounded and by welcoming the sinner whose soul is wounded, we put our credibility as Christians on the line,” the Pope concludes. “Let us always remember the words of St. John of the Cross: ‘In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.’”

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, the moderator at Tuesday’s presentation, pointed out that the 100-page book is not so much a lengthy interview as a “real conversation” that ventures to go “deeper” into the Pope’s thinking on mercy. His experiences in this regard are a “very precious” contribution to the Jubilee of Mercy, Father Lombardi said.


A Prisoner’s Testimony of Mercy

Also at Tuesday’s presentation was Zhang Agostino Jianqing, a 30-year-old prisoner serving 20 years in a Padua, Italy, prison. He gave his testimony to reporters on how the mercy of God, shown through friends and family, and particularly his grieving mother, helped him to be received into the Church this year (he took the name Agostino, in memory of the trials of St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica). He thanked Pope Francis for the “affection, tenderness and endless witness, and all the pages of this book, from which the heart of a merciful pastor emerges. We always remember you in our prayers.”

The Italian actor and comedian Roberto Benigni also spoke, calling The Name of God Is Mercy a “beautiful book” that is small enough to allow you to carry Pope Francis “in your pocket.”

The Pope, he said, is “bringing the Church along with him, going to places we’ve forgotten.” Pope Francis is “so full of mercy, you could sell it by the pound,” he said, adding that mercy is not “a virtue” and “does not sit still for a second, but reaches out to sinners and the poor.”

The book, Benigni said, “raises our hearts without watering down our brains.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.