What do a Venetian cardinal, a Chinese inmate and a Tuscan comedian all have in common?
VATICAN CITY — Actor and comedian Roberto Benigni, known for his Academy Award-winning performance in the 1998 film Life is Beautiful, brought the house down in Rome on Monday, during the presentation of a new book-length interview with Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy.
When he received the call from the Vatican asking him to be on the panel, Benigni recounted at the launch, “they told me, ‘His Holiness would like …,’ and I said ‘yes!’ without letting them finish.”
“I’d do anything — be a Swiss guard, drive the pope-mobile — absolutely anything for this pope,” he said.
Hundreds of people packed the auditorium of the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum” near the Vatican for the launch. Among the featured speakers were Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Roberto Benigni, and Zhang Jianqing, a Chinese immigrant currently incarcerated in Padua, Italy.
Jianqing, who took the name Augustine when he was baptized in 2015, was permitted to leave prison for the day to meet Pope Francis and share his conversion story at the launch.
Commenting on the featured speakers, Benigni quipped that only with a pope like Francis could a book presentation be held in the Vatican with a Venetian Cardinal, a Chinese inmate and a Tuscan comedian.
In his much-anticipated presentation, Benigni talked first about his impressions on reading the book. “It’s a book that caresses us, that embraces us, that has mercy on us … mercy — pay attention! — that isn’t just any virtue, it isn’t seated in an easy chair … it’s an active virtue that moves. Look at the pope. He never stays still.”
He continued: “Mercy doesn’t only move the heart but also the arms the legs, the heels, the knees, it moves body and soul, it never stays still! It reaches out to the poor, it goes to meet poverty; it doesn’t stand still even for a second …”
Benigni then praised Pope Francis for making mercy the centerpiece of his pontificate.
“It is the mercy of Francis. But pay attention! It’s not that it’s a sentimental, condescending or, even worse, ‘feel-good’ vision of life. No, it’s a severe virtue, it’s a true challenge, but not only a religious and theological one. It’s a social and political challenge.
“What Francis is doing is impressive. And how is Francis overcoming this ‘unbelievable’ challenge? What gives him the strength? Precisely the medicine of mercy. He, you can see it, goes in search of those who are defeated, among the last and the least ones. Where did he go publicly at the beginning of his pontificate? To Lampedusa, precisely where the last and the least ones arrive. And where did he open the Holy Door for the Jubilee? In the Central African Republic, in the poorest of the poorest places in the world: precisely in the poorest place, he goes to be close … to the world’s pain and suffering, because it’s in the midst of pain and suffering that mercy is born.”
In a world that asks for condemnation, the Italian actor and comedian said, Francis wants mercy to triumph. And he doesn’t view mercy and opposing justice.
“And so, he says if one forgives everything, though, what’s justice going to do? But mercy, Francis tells us, is the greatest form of justice. Justice is the minimum of mercy. Mercy doesn’t eliminate justice, it doesn’t abolish it, it doesn’t corrupt it. It goes beyond it. A world with justice alone would be a cold world, wouldn’t it? We sense that man doesn’t only need justice; he needs something else. One one senses that, in the book, Francis enables us to really feel this, because mercy is truly the source of his pontificate …
“I would have loved to be a priest,” he said.
When he was small and people would ask what he wanted to be when he grew up: “‘I’d respond, the pope.’ Since this answer made everyone laugh, I understood that I had to be a comedian. If they’d all knelt, I would have tried to be pope.”
Enjoy a small slice of Benigni’s talk, here:
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.