“I felt as though I had been abandoned”
Pope Francis recalls how, as a teenager growing up in Buenos Aires in the early 1950s, already considering his own vocation, a visiting priest to the Bergoglio family’s parish of San Jose in the Flores district taught him, when he went to confession, all about the mercy of God.
“I don’t have any particular memories of mercy as a young child. But I do as a young man. I think of Father Carlos Duarte Ibarra, the confessor I met in my parish church on September 21, 1953, the day the Church celebrated St. Matthew, the apostle and evangelist. I was 17 years old. On confessing myself to him, I felt welcomed by the mercy of God.
“Ibarra was originally from Corrientes but was in Buenos Aires to receive treatment for leukemia. He died the following year. I still remember how, when I got home after his funeral and burial, I felt as though I had been abandoned. And I cried a lot that night, really a lot, and hid in my room.
“Why? Because I had lost a person who helped me feel the mercy of God, that miserando atque eligendo, an expression I didn’t know at the time but eventually would choose as my Episcopal motto. I learned about it later, in the homilies of the English monk, the Venerable Bede [672–735]. When describing the calling of Matthew, he writes: ‘Jesus saw the tax collector and by having mercy chose him as an apostle saying to him, “follow me.”’
“This is the translation commonly given for the words of St. Bede [originally written in Latin]. I like to translate ‘miserando’ with another gerund that doesn’t exist: misericordando or mercying. So, ‘mercying him and choosing him’ describes the vision of Jesus who gives the gift of mercy and chooses, and takes with him.”
“The Church is a field hospital for the wounded”
In his almost three years as pope, Francis has urged all Catholics, especially priests and bishops, to get out of their comfortable church buildings and take the message of God directly to those in need, the marginalized and the desperate — as he himself did when archbishop of Buenos Aires, traveling every week to the city’s shantytowns. This, he explains, is the work of mercy.
“To follow the way of the Lord, the Church is called on to dispense its mercy over all those who recognize themselves as sinners, who assume responsibility for the evil they have committed and who feel in need of forgiveness. The Church does not exist to condemn people but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.
“I often say that in order for this to happen, it is necessary to go out: to go out from the churches and the parishes, to go outside and look for people where they live, where they suffer, and where they hope. I like to use the image of a field hospital to describe this ‘Church that goes forth.’ It exists where there is combat. It is not a solid structure with all the equipment where people go to receive treatment for both small and large infirmities. It is a mobile structure that offers first aid and immediate care, so that its soldiers do not die.
“It is a place for urgent care, not a place to see a specialist. I hope that the Jubilee [The Holy Year of Mercy] 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.”
“I deserve to be in prison”
There is, Pope Francis tells his interviewer, no one who is beyond God’s mercy, whatever they have done in their lives.
“The pope is a man who needs the mercy of God. I said it sincerely to the prisoners of Palmasola, in Bolivia [during his July 2015 visit to their country], to those men and women who welcomed me so warmly. I reminded them that even St. Peter and St. Paul had been prisoners.
“I have a special relationship with people in prisons, deprived of their freedom. I have always been very attached to them, precisely because of my awareness of being a sinner. Every time I go through the gates into a prison to celebrate Mass or for a visit, I always think: Why them and not me? I should be here. I deserve to be here. Their fall could have been mine. I do not feel superior to the people who stand before me.
“And so I repeat and pray: Why him and not me? It might seem shocking, but I derive consolation from Peter: he betrayed Jesus, and even so he was chosen.”
“I am a sinner”
As he explores the importance of mercy in the Church’s mission in a modern world that no longer knows how to cure its wounds — or even if it is possible — Pope Francis draws on the wisdom of his predecessor but two, Pope John I (Cardinal Albino Luciani), who reigned for just 33 days in 1978, to illustrate that all of us are sinners, even those who hold the highest offices in the Church.
“There is the homily when Albino Luciani said he had been chosen because the Lord preferred that certain things not be engraved in bronze or marble but in the dust, so that if the writing had remained, it would have been clear that the merit was all and only God’s. He, the bishop and future Pope John Paul I, called himself ‘dust.’
“I have to say that when I speak of this, I always think of what [the apostle] Peter told Jesus on the Sunday of his resurrection, when he met him on his own, a meeting hinted at in the Gospel of Luke. What might Peter have said to the Messiah upon his resurrection from the tomb? Might he have said he felt like a sinner?
“He must have thought of his betrayal, of what had happened a few days earlier when he pretended three times not to recognize Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house. He must have thought of his bitter and public tears.
“If Peter did all that, if the gospels describe his sin and denials to us, and if despite all this Jesus said [to him], ‘tend my sheep’ (John 21), I don’t think we should be surprised if his successors describe themselves as sinners. It is nothing new.”
“Why the sinner is always welcome”
Each of us has to open the door “a crack” to recognize our own sinfulness, Pope Francis urges, to receive mercy. His remarks will be read with particular attention by divorced and gay Catholics, some of whom have argued at the time of the recent synods in Rome that the failure of their marriage, or their sexuality, should not be seen as a sin.
“The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: ‘this is a sin.’ 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. Jesus forgave even those who crucified and scorned him.
“We must go back to the gospel. We find that it speaks not only of welcoming and forgiveness but also of the ‘feast’ for the returning son. The expression of mercy is the joy of the feast, and that is well expressed in the gospel of Luke: ‘I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance.’
“It does not say ‘and if he should then relapse and go back to his ways and commit more sins, that’s his problem!’ No, when Peter asked how many times he should forgive someone, Jesus said not seven times but seventy times seven. Or in other words, always. Precisely because there is sin in the world, precisely because our human nature is wounded by original sin, God, who delivered his son for us, revealed himself as mercy.”
“The scandalous double life of Christians”
Failure to recognize our own sinfulness, suggests Pope Francis, can result in a “corruption” of those who claim to be Christians. Though his remarks in the interview are not directed to any group in particular, his use of words such as “corruption” and “scandal” echo those he has deployed in pursuit of his reforms of the Vatican curia. In December 2014, he accused a gathering of officials there of suffering 15 ailments, including the “pathology of power” and “accumulating material goods.”
“Corruption is the sin which, rather than being recognized as such and rendering us humble, is elevated to a system; it becomes a mental habit, a way of living. We no longer feel the need for forgiveness and mercy, but we justify ourselves and our behaviors.
“Jesus says to his disciples: even if your brother offends you seven times a day, and seven times a day he returns to you to ask for forgiveness, forgive him. The repentant sinner, who sins again and again because of his weakness, will find forgiveness if he acknowledges his need for mercy. The corrupt man is the one who sins but does not repent, who sins and pretends to be Christian, and it is this double life that is scandalous.
“The corrupt man does not know humility; he does not consider himself in need of help; he leads a double life. We must not accept the state of corruption as if it were just another sin. Even though corruption is often identified with sin, in fact they are two distinct realities, albeit interconnected. Sin, especially if repeated, can lead to corruption, not quantitatively — in the sense that a certain number of sins makes a person corrupt — but rather qualitatively: habits are formed that limit one’s capacity for love and create a false sense of self-sufficiency.
“The corrupt man tires of asking for forgiveness and ends up believing he doesn’t need to ask for it anymore. We don’t become corrupt people overnight. It is a long, slippery slope that cannot be identified simply as a series of sins. One may be a great sinner and never fall into corruption if hearts feel their own weakness. That small opening allows the strength of God to enter.
“When a sinner recognizes himself as such, he admits in some way that what he was attached to, or clings to, is false. The corrupt man hides what he considers his true treasure, but which really makes him a slave and masks his vice with good manners, always managing to keep up appearances.”
The Name of God Is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli by Pope Francis, translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky.
Licensed by © 2016—Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano © 2016—EDIZIONI PIEMME Spa, Milano.