By Christopher West
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Francis’s first book as pope, a lengthy interview with Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Sharing memories of his childhood and stories from his life as a priest and bishop, Pope Francis explains why he called this Holy Year of Mercy.
Here are five of many gems I took away:
Right in the first chapter, Pope Francis is intent on establishing the continuity of his papacy with his predecessors, connecting the dots between his pastoral emphasis on mercy and the teachings of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. In this way he is correcting the widespread impression people have of his papacy as a break from the past.
The image of mercy from St. Francis de Sales: “If you have a little donkey and along the road it falls onto the cobblestones, what should you do? You certainly don’t go there with a stick to beat it, poor little thing, it’s already unfortunate enough. You must take it by the halter and say, ‘Up, let’s take the road again.’”
Shame is a grace. A person “does well to feel shame for his sins,” says Pope Francis. There is a negative sense of shame in which we condemn ourselves as unworthy of love, unworthy of mercy, unforgivable. This is not what Pope Francis has in mind. Rather, he’s speaking of a necessary sense of shame that “is good, positive, because it makes us humble,” he says. This is a great grace for which Pope Francis says we ought to pray, both for ourselves and for others – not to “shame” others in the negative sense, but to invite the grace of humility, contrition, and openness to mercy.
The story of the German soldier (from the Bruce Marshall novel To Every Man a Penny) who, when faced with death by execution, wouldn’t repent in the confessional of his many sins with women. “How can I repent?” he said. “It was something that I enjoyed, and if I had the chance I would do it again, even now.” The young priest, eager to find even the smallest opening through which mercy could enter, had a stroke of inspiration: “But are you sorry that you are not sorry?” The soldier readily confessed that he was sorry for not being sorry. And the “door was opened just a crack,” says Pope Francis, “allowing absolution to come in.” (This story actually appears twice in Francis’s book – in the introduction written by Tornielli, and later in Francis’s own telling of the story).
The insistence that mercy does not negate the truth of sin. Without the reality of sin, there would be no need for mercy, and without our admission of sin, we cannot receive mercy. It is possible, as Francis points out, that sin, “rather than being recognized as such and making us humble,” can become “a mental habit, a way of living.” The Pope calls this corruption. “The corrupt man is so closed off and contented in the complacency of his self-sufficiency that he does not allow himself to be called into question by anything or anyone.” He “often doesn’t realize is own condition, much as a person with bad breath does not know he has it,” observes Francis. The Church says “yes” to sinners, Pope Francis insists, but “no” to the corrupt. Does this mean there’s no hope for the corrupt? No. It means that as soon as a person repents of his corruption, by definition, he’s no longer corrupt; he’s now a sinner acknowledging his need for mercy, and that’s what is required to receive it.
I’m especially struck by the bad breath image. I can see at times in my own life where I’ve been so unaware of my own “bad breath” that I needed others to point it out to me. Lord, show us our bad breath and help us to know you love us in it, to the point that you do not hesitate even to kiss us in it … Amen.
Christopher West, is a lecturer, best-selling writer and author of multiple audio and video programs which have made him the world’s most recognized teacher of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” He is founder and president of The Cor Project, a global membership and outreach organization. His latest book is Pope Francis to Go: Bite-Sized Morsels from The Joy of the Gospel.