"A priest needs to think of his own sins, listen with tenderness, pray to the Lord for a heart as merciful as his, and not cast the first stone because he, too, is a sinner who needs to be forgiven. He needs to try to resemble God in all his mercy."
Most people would jump at an opportunity to have an intimate hour-long conversation with Pope Francis. Most would be happy just to be a "fly on the wall" eavesdropping. With the publication of Andrea Tornielli's book-length interview with Pope Francis entitled The Name of God is Mercy, Catholics have the chance to listen in on a fascinating conversation about Pope Francis' life, priorities, advice for Catholics, his analysis of some of the bigger issues facing the world and especially about God's mercy and why and how much we all need it.
To call it a book-length interview is a perhaps a little deceiving, since there are only 40 questions and even meticulous readers could finish it in an hour. But even in this quick read, Pope Francis and Tornielli cover a lot of ground. As we begin next week the holy season of Lent during this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the conversation is particularly timely and relevant.
Tornielli got the idea of such a book last March 13, when on his second anniversary Pope Francis led a penance service in St. Peter's Basilica and surprised everyone by announcing a Jubilee of Mercy. "I thought how wonderful it would be," the journalist wrote in the preface, "to ask him a few questions that focused on the theme of mercy and forgiveness, to analyze what those words mean to him as a man and a priest." He hoped that such an interview "would reveal the heart of Francis and his vision" and be a "text that would open doors, especially during this Holy Year, when the Church wants to show, in a very special and even more significant way, its face of mercy."
Pope Francis was happy to oblige. Last July he sat down with Tornielli to discuss what he called "Jesus' most important message," God's "name" and "identity card": Mercy.
He revealed that the idea of a special Jubilee went back to his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when during a roundtable discussion with theologians about what a Pope could do to unite people in the face of so many seemingly intractable disputes, one participant suggested a "Holy Year of Forgiveness." He never forgot.
Tornielli does an excellent job of asking questions that people regularly have and follows up on various themes raised by Francis since his election. Here's a taste:
About his prayers for the holy year: "I hope that the Jubilee will serve to reveal the Church's deeply maternal and merciful side, a Church that goes forth toward those who are 'wounded,' who are in need of an attentive ear, understanding, forgiveness and love."
About the Church as a hospital for sinners: "The Church does not exist to condemn people but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God's mercy."
About his love for hearing confessions: "At times, I'd like to be able to walk into a church and sit down in a confessional again!"
About his style as a confessor: "Even when I have found myself before a locked door, I have always tried to find a crack, just a tiny opening so that I can pry open that door and grant forgiveness and mercy."
About advice he'd give to confessors: "A priest needs to think of his own sins, listen with tenderness, pray to the Lord for a heart as merciful as his, and not cast the first stone because he, too, is a sinner who needs to be forgiven. He needs to try to resemble God in all his mercy."
About God's joy in forgiving: "Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance."
About his model penitents: "I greatly enjoy hearing children confess, because they are not abstract; they say what really happened ... and they know what they did was wrong."
About the need to confess one's sins to God through a priest rather than directly: "If you are not capable of talking to your brother about your mistakes, you can be sure that you can't talk about them with God, either, and therefore you end up confessing into the mirror, to yourself."
About the importance of confession for knowing God: "Only he who has been touched and caressed by the tenderness of his mercy really knows the Lord. ... Recognizing oneself as a sinner is a grace."
About the advice to make a good confession: someone should "reflect on the truth of his life, ... look earnestly at himself, ... feel like a sinner, ... recognize our need, our emptiness, our wretchedness. We cannot be arrogant."
About whether great sinners can be forgiven: "God's "mercy is infinitely greater than our sins, his medicine is infinitely stronger than our illnesses that he has to heal."
About the repentance necessary to receive God's forgiveness: "Mercy exists, but ... if you don't recognize yourself as a sinner, it means you don't want to receive it."
About what a priest should do when he can't absolve someone because of insufficient resolve to abandon sinful situations: "If the confessor cannot absolve a person, he needs to explain why. ... If we don't show them the love and mercy of God, we push them away and perhaps they will never come back. So embrace them and be compassionate, even if you can't absolve them. Give them a blessing."
About why the Church denounces sin: "The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth. ... But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God."
About what he meant by saying "Who am I to judge?" with regard to repentant gays: "I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism ... where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized. ... God loves all his creatures. ... I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, ... stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together."
About how to grow in mercy toward others: "The more conscious we are of our own wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, the more capable we are of looking upon the many 'wounded' we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy."
About what's most important for a Catholic to do in this Jubilee Year: "He should open up to the Mercy of God, open up his heart and himself, and allow Jesus to come toward him by approaching the confessional with faith. And he should try to be merciful with others."
As the title suggests, God's name is mercy. And Pope Francis in this interview helps us to learn how better to hallow God's name.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.