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The Name of God is Mercy
A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli
Popes rarely publish personal books. Saint John Paul II was a prolific poet and playwright, but there was a marked halt in his creative writing after he took on the papacy and he published just one collection of poems after taking on the role. The Name of God is Mercy offers an extraordinary insight into the mind of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the form of an interview with Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Their discussion was not intended to provide punchy phrases for media debate on divisive issues in the aftermath of the synod on the family and the lead up to a post-synodical document (expected in 2016). Anyone looking to this book for explicit clarification of his personal stance on divorce and homosexuality will be disappointed. Instead, the book reveals the heart of Francis and his vision. The Name of God is Mercy is the result of years of deliberation, from both interviewer and interviewee, and is overwhelming in the strength of its affirmation of mercy.
Francis’ personal perspectives on mercy are undoubtedly the highlight of the book. He tells us about the olive wood staff he carried when he was a bishop; it was made by prisoners in rehabilitation. We learn that he carries the cross from a rosary that used to belong to a great confessor, a cross kissed by perhaps thousands of penitents, and he touches it whenever he has a bad thought about someone. Every time he visits a prison he says to himself “Why them and not me?” It is extreme, and we get a personal insight into a man who has been humbled by God’s mercy.
Whilst answering an unrelated question on the rise in spirituality, he shares that his niece married a man whose first marriage was not yet annulled. Francis applauds the religious maturity of this man in his persistence in asking for a blessing when he knew he could not be absolved. There is no suggestion of him softening towards divorce, he avoids using the word, but he does show love and respect for people in that situation.
Francis takes this opportunity to address the mainstream media’s portrayal of him as different from other Popes with subtlety and generosity. He expresses surprise at being set apart from his predecessors and points out that Pope Paul VI and Albino Luciani (later Pope John Paul I) both admitted their own fallibility too.
The reader is reminded that Francis’ thoughts on divisive issues are entirely in line with the Church’s teaching; take, for instance, homosexuality. He is famous for his “Who am I to judge” response given in a press conference on an aeroplane and uses this opportunity to reiterate that sentiment, showing that it was deliberate rather than an off-the-cuff remark or personal comment. He goes further, saying that this is rooted in the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Francis attempts to break down any perceived distinction between himself and the Church, though it is too subtle and could be missed easily. The text would have benefited from a more explicit statement on this.
Francis’ words on mercy are nothing new, but they help the reader to understand why he places such a high value on it. The image of sin as a wound is central to this book. This metaphor is presented in opposition to sin as a stain, which advocates a “dry cleaning” approach to confession. According to Francis, sin cannot simply be cleaned, allowing all to return to normal; sin is a wound that needs to be healed. The Church is presented as a hospital for urgent care rather than a place to see a specialist. Francis is insistent that no one is irredeemable with God’s mercy.
Another focus point is ‘sinners yes corrupt no’. Francis makes an important distinction between sin and the far more serious problem of corruption. It becomes a mental habit, not just another sin, though they are interconnected. The corrupt man tires of asking for forgiveness and begins to believe he doesn’t need it anymore. Francis is uncompromising on sin and is not afraid to admit that this is and has been present in the Church, giving an example of a bad confessor asking inappropriate questions. He is even tougher on corruption and the Church is not exempt from this. Corruption is the result of failure to recognise sinfulness; this highlights his understanding of the vital importance of the year of mercy as a year for healing.
Francis reminds us that one of the tasks of the Church is to show people there is no sin that can prevail over mercy and he succeeds in making progress towards communicating this. The Name of God is Mercy reminds readers of the importance to show love and compassion whilst emphasising the Church’s duty, as a hospital for those wounded by sin, to do its best for those under its care. Francis insists that even the smallest opening of oneself to God, being sorry for not being sorry, can allow for God’s healing mercy. The Name of God is Mercy is an open door, an invitation to be humbled and healed, from Pope Francis on behalf of the Church.
Clare Purtill is currently a research intern at Theos | @clare_purtill
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