From the moment of his election Pope Francis has tirelessly proclaimed the abundance of God’s mercy, making it the theme of the current Jubilee year. Mercy is also the subject of a book-length interview – published recently as The Name of God is Mercy – given by Pope Francis to the Italian “Vaticanista” Andrea Tornielli. In the following interview, Tornielli, who has been a Vatican correspondent under three popes, answers questions from the UK Catholic journal The Tablet, beginning with whether he had learned anything new about the current Pope from his latest encounter.
Andrea Tornielli: Yes certainly. I have been able to confirm the extent to which the message of mercy has been central to his life and how it remains central today. In this sense, the unexpected announcement of the Extraordinary Jubilee is not really surprising if one studies Francis’ teaching. I also learned in the interview the importance for Bergoglio of being a priest who is in constant contact with people.
AT: I am certain that he is more at ease in the role of Pope. Whenever anyone asks him how he is, he repeats that he sleeps soundly despite all the problems and an extraordinary workload.
AT: In order to understand this you have to go back to Sunday 17 March 2013, to that first Mass with the people celebrated by the newly elected Pope in the parish church of St Anna in the Vatican. In a powerful homily, Francis said that mercy is “Christ’s most important message”.
The message of a God who is love and who searches for every possible way to meet us in order to forgive us has a particular resonance in a world lacerated by divisions and violence, a world that has lost the sense of sin and, it seems, the belief that it is always possible to begin anew.
AT: Today there are many wounded families. In the past 30 years, the nature of society in the West has changed radically. The message of the Jubilee is also directed at these wounded families. And you must not forget that, as Pope Francis has explained many times, the family is precisely the place where forgiveness and mercy are experienced first. It is the place where education begins and where we learn to forgive.
AT: If we put to one side the oversimplifications in the media, one finds many analogies: John Paul II was the Pope of grand gestures, of rock-solid faith and of mission in the world, with a particular emphasis on moral themes. Benedict XVI was the Pope of the written word and he called people back to the essentials of the Christian message: this has been little understood even by so-called “Ratzingerians” who have tried to squeeze him into conservative positions. Pope Francis asks Christians to go out, to reach to those who are far away, and to bear witness to the radical message of the Gospel, first and foremost by accompaniment and closeness to others.
Compared with his two immediate predecessors, Francis places more emphasis on support for the poor. He sees this not as a sociological consequence of faith but as integral to faith itself, because to be drawn to the poor means to touch the “flesh of Christ”. As far as the media are concerned, I think I can say that all three have understood the importance and have engaged with them.
AT: There aren’t substantial differences because the message of mercy lies at the heart of Christianity. Certainly mercy is a central theme in Francis’ preaching. But one must not forget John Paul II’s teaching on this subject: his encyclical, Dives in misericordia and his institution of Divine Mercy Sunday. You can also find significant passages on mercy in Pope Benedict’s teaching. I would say that Francis’ approach to this subject reminds me a lot of John Paul I’s (Albino Luciani).
AT: Vatileaks 1 was provoked by the theft of documents from Pope Benedict’s desk while Vatileaks 2 concerns individuals who had worked as part of a commission of inquiry. The leaked documents in this second Vatileaks are the products of an internal investigation ordered by Pope Francis himself and his collaborators. I think the reaction of the two popes has been fairly similar in each case: both have initiated prosecutions by the Vatican authorities and both have not allowed themselves to be intimidated.
AT: Opposition, disagreements, backbiting and resistance in the Curia and in the hierarchies of the Church are nothing new. You have only to look at the recent history of the papacy to see that all popes have faced them. It doesn’t seem to me that Francis has “strategies” to overcome opposition but rather that he seeks to inspire a reform of hearts without which it is not possible to reform structures. He does this above all with his witness and with his preaching.
AT: The Pope has to take decisions of government. But it seems to me that the way of synodality and collegiality is a fundamental characteristic of his pontificate. Let us not forget that at the very beginning Francis appointed a council of cardinals from all over the world to help him with the governance of the Church and the reform of the Curia.
Published in The Tablet, 16th January 2016, pages 10-11.