Arms flailing, the exuberant and perhaps hyperactive Oscar-winning Italian actor and comedian Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) described Pope Francis as a masterful minister of God’s mercy, which is always active and always on the move.
Benigni brought the house down on 12 January during the presentation of the new book, The Name of God Is Mercy. The actor read excerpts of the book, but also offered his own reflections on mercy and bubbled over with praise for Pope Francis.
He said that when he received the call asking him to participate in the book launch, he was told, ‘His Holiness would like … ’ – “and I said, ‘Yes!’ without letting them finish. I’d do anything – be a Swiss Guard, drive the popemobile – absolutely anything for this pope”.
“Mercy,” Benigni said, “is not a virtue that’s seated in an easy chair. It’s an active virtue, one that moves. Just look at the pope, he’s never still. It moves not just the heart, but the arms, legs, heels, knees. It moves heart and soul. It’s never still.”
“I would have loved to be a priest,” he said. When he was small and people would ask what he wanted to be, Benigni said, “I’d respond, ‘the pope.’ Because this response made everyone laugh, I understood I had to be a comedian. If they’d all knelt, I would (have tried to) be pope”.
Hundreds of people packed the auditorium of the Augustinian Patristic Institute across the street from the Vatican for the presentation.
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the book is not so much an explanation of mercy as it is an account of how Pope Francis has experienced mercy in his personal life, his priestly ministry and his own spirituality.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said that in the book, it is as if Pope Francis wants “to take us by the hand and lead us into the great and comforting mystery of God’s mercy, a mystery far from our human logic and yet so desired by us pilgrims lost in this age of challenges and trials”.
Benigni said the book clearly demonstrates how mercy is not a soft, saccharine virtue, but one that challenges people and has both social and political implications for the way it offers people a second chance and a helping hand.
Zhang Jianqing, an immigrant from China incarcerated in Padua, Italy, who took the name Agostino when he was baptised in 2015, was given leave to meet Pope Francis and share his conversion story at the book presentation.
Meeting and becoming friends with Christians who visited the prison, Zhang came to learn about Jesus and grew to love him. He hesitated converting, though, he said, because he had decided already that he should do nothing more in his life to hurt his family and especially his mother, a practising Buddhist.
But his mother told him he must follow his heart, Zhang said. “God’s mercy changed my life.”