Anyone browsing books in a store or library will have observed that Pope Francis’ pontificate continues to generate a good deal of ink. In a relatively short time, the pope has emerged as a world figure, not only as the formal head of the world’s one billion Catholics, but also among the legion of spiritual seekers from other faith traditions and those not under the umbrella of organized religion. The Name of God is Mercy is of particular importance as an accompaniment to the papal Year of Mercy. It comprises a conversation between Pope Francis and a well-known Vatican Journalist, Andrea Tornielli, along with the text of the formal declaration (Bull of Indiction) of the “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.” There is a remarkable similarity in the tone and content of both sections of this book, a rare convergence of a formal Vatican document and the more or less spontaneous reflections of a pope.
This book is exquisitely personal in tone, free flowing yet substantive. The pope’s responses to his interlocutor’s sometimes pointed questions reveal a disarming degree of honesty and even vulnerability that occasionally catches the interviewer off guard. For example, when Francis calls himself a sinner, Tornielli states that it is “striking to hear a pope say this.” The pope then expresses his own surprise by responding with, “Really?” Francis goes on to describe how upon entering a prison he becomes mindful of how only God’s grace and mercy have kept him from being incarcerated: “I deserve to be here. Their fall could have been mine.”
It is inevitable that any serious discussions of mercy will lead to considerations of justice. Regardless of one’s religious orientation, it cannot be denied that actions have consequences, natural and/or humanly imposed. Francis does not avoid the paradoxical relationship between justice and mercy and places it within the mysterious perspective of Divine love. “Justice should not be devalued or rendered superfluous . . . God does not deny justice.” However, because of God’s essential merciful nature, “. . . He (God) envelops it and surpasses (justice) with an event in which we experience love as the true foundation of justice.” (Emphasis added.)
In saying, “sinners yes, corrupt no!” the pope captures a critical distinction that is foundational to his teaching. What Francis calls “corruption” is the delusion of absence of sin in one’s life. In contrast, when people recognize the errors of their ways, they “(may) be great sinners and never fall into corruption.” Mercy cannot be received unless one experiences a need for it. (Pope Francis makes the point that even praying for the desire to feel the need for mercy is an important step toward receiving the gift.) The mutuality between repentance and Divine mercy is not only personal; it is “. . . also important in social relationships and relations between countries.”
The Name of God is Mercy has the potential to engage a radical conversion of the heart: to receive God’s mercy, dispel fear, and enlarge its capacity for love.