Book Note: The Name of God is Mercy, by Pope Francis

A reproduction of the front page of Pope Francis's book "The name of God is Mercy" is seen in this Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 photo taken in Rome, Italy. This is the first time the Pope has put his name on a book since he was elected. It’s a book-length conversation with an Italian journalist, focusing on mercy, the real leitmotiv of his papacy and the Holy Year. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

The Catholic church is currently celebrating a Holy Year of Mercy, a time designated by the Pope to focus the church more closely on what he considers to be God’s most important attribute and “the core of the Gospel message” (7). The Name of God is Mercy is an interview between Pope Francis and a Vatican reporter. It’s conversational and not overly polished, with a few striking moments of candor.

For example, the interview begins with the Pope describing the process of inspiration that led to his Holy Year declaration:

There was no particular or defining moment. Things come to me by themselves, they are the ways of the Lord, and they are preserved in prayer. I am inclined never to trust my first reaction to an idea or to a proposal that is made to me…in part because my first reaction is usually wrong. I have learned to wait, to trust in the Lord, to ask for his help, so I can discern better and receive guidance” (5)

This leads to an interesting discussion about his experience as a confessor (a priest who receives confessions from Catholics and serves as the church’s instrument to absolve certain sins). I’ve written before about how LDS bishops might like to ponder the experiences of Catholic confessors. In this book Francis observes that mercy is something most people seek, even if it’s from psychics and fortune-tellers rather than priests:

Mostly, people are looking for someone to listen to them. Someone willing to grant them time, to listen to their dramas and difficulties. This is what I call ‘the apostolate of the ear,’ and it is important. Very important. I feel compelled to say to confessors: talk, listen with patience, and above all tell people that God loves them. And if the confessor cannot absolve a person, he needs to explain why, he needs to give them a blessing, even without the holy sacrament” (17).

Here the juxtaposition between the Pope’s perceived liberalism/conservativism is laid bare: in calling for greater extension of mercy and understanding (compassion even), the Pope isn’t asking priests to take it easy on things the church has long considered sinful. Francis grounds the confessor-and-absolution arrangement in John 20:19–23 where the apostles are given instruction to remit sins. Catholics with authority (perhaps similar to our bishops, stake presidents, high councilmen, etc.) are to act “in persona Christi,” they are to be “instruments of the mercy of God” (21). Francis implores them to “talk, listen with patience, and above all tell people that God loves them…they are all loved by God, they are sought out by God, they are in need of blessing. Be tender with these people. Do not push them away” (17).

The Pope’s experience as confessor is deeply informed by his experience as a penitent confessing; his recognition of his own sins incline him toward mercy. When receiving confession he says “I always thought about myself, about my own sins, and about my need for mercy, and so I tried to forgive a great deal” (28). I was drawn to his arresting description:

[A person who is confessing sins] ought to reflect on the truth of his life, of what he feels and what he thinks before God. He ought to be able to look earnestly at himself and his sin. He ought to feel like a sinner, so that he can be amazed by God. In order to be filled with his gift of infinite mercy, we need to recognize our need, our emptiness, we cannot be arrogant” (43).

This description of reconciliation with God as an emptying and refilling reminded me of a passage in the Book of Mormon where meekness, confession, and charity play off each other:

[A person] cannot have faith and hope save they shall be meek and lowly of heart…, for none is acceptable before God save the meek and lowly in heart. And if someone is meek and lowly in heart and confesses by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, they must needs have charity. For if they have not charity they are nothing…Wherefore, my beloved friends, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ…” (slight paraphrase of Moroni 7:43-44, 48).

 

The Pope insists ecclesiastical position does not ensure that one has grasped this truth, and in fact, authority can disincentivize some from recognize it:

The conduct of the scholars of the law [speaking of the New Testament “scribes”] is often described in the words of the Gospel: they represent the principal opposition to Jesus; they challenge him in the name of doctrine. This approach is repeated throughout the long history of the church… On the one hand, there is the fear of losing the just and saved, the sheep that are already safely inside the pen. On the other hand, there is the desire to save the sinners, the lost, those on the other side of the fence. The first is the logic of the [scribes]. The second is the logic of God, who welcomes, embraces, and transfigures evil into good, transforming and redeeming my sin, transmuting condemnation into salvation” (63, 66).

The themes of Catholic authority, confession, and mercy are woven all throughout The Name of God is Mercy in ways that might help Mormons think through some of our challenges. Since I don’t hold ecclesiastical position in the Church (aside from being an ordained elder), I was especially drawn to a passage about mercy in the home—one that mothers and fathers can consider (and I wondered how the same idea might be explored in the context of single members):

The family is the first school for children, it is the unwavering reference point for the young… It is the first school of mercy, because it is there that we have been loved and learned to love, have been forgiven and learned to forgive” (88).

The Name of God is Mercy offers Mormons plenty of food for thought. It includes an appendix with the Papal bull of indiction declaring the Holy Year of Mercy, which you can also read here.

 

PS—Alternate post title: “BCC seeks after absolution for unfortunate LDS Living post.”

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Blair: it sounds like an enriching book!

    That LDS Living post seems to have been taken down. Perhaps it’s undertaking a period of penitence in preparation for Easter.

  2. Whoopsy. I must’ve messed up the link. It’s still there. Fixed.

  3. Well, the article is a bit unfortunate, but the author seems sufficiently committed to the 11th article of faith to cut us Anglo-Catholic Mormons some slack.

  4. Indeed. I didn’t know whether to be offended or to simply laugh at the Lent article.

  5. I vote laugh. Getting offended sounds like a good thing to give up for Lent.

  6. Blair, thank you for pointing me toward this book and those beautiful quotes,
    ‘…and above all tell people that God loves them…” That other article is unfortunate, as in why? why even distinguish and attempt to make mormonism better. I definitely can stand to learn a thing or two from Ash Wednesday and Lent, and I imagine it would only make my own spiritual practice more enriched and meaningful. But mostly, thanks for a great book review on a seemingly great book.