For Pope Francis, mercy is a personal encounter with God, writes Andrea Tornielli
On March 13, 2015, as I listened to Francis’ homily for the penitential liturgy, at the end of which he was about to announce the Extraordinary Holy Year, I thought: it would be great to ask him some questions specifically on the themes of mercy and forgiveness, to find out more about what those words meant to him personally, as a man and as a priest.
My intention was not to fish for catchphrases that could be snapped up by the media and used in the debate over the Synod on the Family, often reduced to a derby between two fan clubs. I was keen on conducting an interview that reflected what was in Francis’ heart and his way of seeing things. A text that left doors open, at a time such as the Jubilee, when the Church wishes to show its merciful side in a special and even more significant way.
The Pope accepted my proposal. This book, titled The Name of God is Mercy, is the result of a conversation that began in his sitting room in St Martha’s House, in the Vatican, one muggy afternoon last July, just a few days after Francis returned from his visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.
I sent a rather last-minute list of questions and subjects I wanted to cover. I turned up at St Martha’s House armed with three dictaphones, two digital ones and one with the old micro cassettes.
In December 2013, when I carried out the interview for Italian newspaper La Stampa, I pressed the wrong button and lost an audio file (fortunately, then too, I had gone to the interview equipped with two devices). Francis was waiting for me with some Bible passages and quotes by the Church Fathers laid out on the table in front of him. Given the sweltering heat, he immediately invited me to take off my jacket and make myself comfortable.
He saw that I didn’t have a notebook or a jotter, just a small notepad where I had noted my questions down. He offered to go and fetch me some blank sheets of paper. We began a long conversation and he answered every single question.
He referred to examples from his experience as a priest and bishop, telling me for example about the husband of a niece of his, who had divorced and remarried while still awaiting the official annulment of his first marriage. The man would go to the confessional every week, to speak with the priest and every time, he would recognise: “I know you cannot absolve me.”
He described his sadness when Fr Carlos Duarte Ibarra, the confessor whom he bumped into in the parish church on September 21, 1953, the day the Church celebrates St Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was 17 at the time and this was the moment that awakened his awe of God and he decided to embrace the religious vocation and priesthood.
On the evening of Fr Duarte’s funeral, which was held a year after that encounter, the man who would later become Pope “retreated to his room and sobbed… because he had lost a person that made him feel God’s mercy”.
I was especially struck by his brief response to a question on the famous phrase he uttered in relation to gay people, on the return flight from Rio de Janeiro in July 2013: “Who am I to judge?” The Pope underlined the importance of referring to them as “homosexual people”, because “the human person comes first, in its entirety and dignity and a person’s sexual tendency is not all which defines them”.
Equally significant is the distinction between a sinner and a corrupt individual. This is not just to do with the number or seriousness of the acts committed but the fact that a sinner humbly recognises they are such and constantly asks for forgiveness so that they can pick themselves up while for the corrupt “it becomes systematic, a mental habit, a way of living”.
Then there was the way in which Pope Francis spoke about his encounters with prisoners and about how he does not feel himself to be any better than them: “Every time I walk into a prison on a visit, I always think to myself: why them and not me?”
In his answers to my questions, Francis spoke often of the importance of feeling small, in need of help and sinners. Here, I hope my interviewee does not take it badly if I let readers in on a little something that went on behind the scenes.
We were talking about the difficulty of recognising oneself as a sinner and in the first draft I prepared, Francis stated: “The medicine is there, the cure is there, if we just take one small step towards God.”
Having re-read the text, he called me up and asked me to add the following: “…or if we at least have the desire to take it”, a phrase I had clumsily dropped for the sake of brevity.
The pastor’s whole heart is in this added, or should I say correctly reinserted phrase, seeking as he does to mirror God’s heart and does all that he can to reach out to sinners. He takes advantage of even the tiniest opportunity to grant forgiveness. As Francis explains in the book, God awaits us with open arms, all we need to do is take one step towards Him as the Prodigal Son does in the Gospel.
But if we do not have the strength to even do this, no matter how weak we are, we simply need to have a desire to take this step. It’s a good start so that grace can get to work and mercy be shown, in a Church that does not see itself as a customs office but seeks out every possible way to forgive.
In one of his homilies in St Martha’s House, Francis said: “How many of us deserve a sentence? And rightly so. But he forgives!” How? “With mercy which does not erase sin: only God’s forgiveness erases it, mercy goes beyond this.” It is like the sky: we look at the sky, there are so many stars, but when the sun rises in the morning, all that light drowns out the stars.
“That is what God’s mercy is like: a great light filled with love and tenderness because God forgives not with a decree but with a caress.”
The Name of God is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli by Pope Francis, translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky, is published by Bluebird Books on January 12 at €18.99.