The Name of God is Mercy is a deceptively simple read. After all, how much can be compressed into a novella-length interview? A lot, it turns out. The pope’s book reads like a much bigger book than 100 pages. The expansiveness comes from the pope’s extensive use of anecdote.
Personal experience touches upon infinity, because we are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, an anecdote, an existentially significant chunk of someone’s life, reads big. Pope Francis’s anecdotes come from sources as varied as, his own life, the lives and writings of other popes, lives of the saints, his own parishioners (both the ignorant rich and the wise poor), and the accounts of confessors.
One of the more central anecdotes that the interviewer Andrea Tornielli chose to highlight in his foreword, is a literary one (literature is frequently more true to life than non-fiction). It is a passage from Bruce Marshall’s To Every Man a Penny that Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation movement liked to quote, the story of a young German soldier captured by the French who refuses to confess. The priest tries every trick in the book, but cannot crack the soldier’s self-sufficient armor. The soldier does not regret a damn thing, he insists that he enjoyed life to the fullest and would live it again just the same if given the choice. Yet, the pastor finds a way to get the lost sheep to confess with a curveball:
“But are you sorry that you are not sorry?” The young man answers, “Yes, I am sorry that I am not sorry.”
This almost maddening willingness to encounter even the most stubborn people precisely where they are is a hallmark of Communion and Liberation spirituality. The influence of this remarkable movement in the renewal of the Church’s life and its influence upon the last three popes is something that should be known more widely.
Now, for the Catholic imagination the confessional is where the encounter between the sinner and God’s mercy is most immediately personally mediated in Catholicism. The pope’s own experience of this fact is why The Name of God is Mercy is a book about, as one of the chapter titles puts it, “The Gift of Confession.” All the other nine chapters in the book deal with confession directly. This very traditional focus is not what I was expecting when I opened the book. In fact, there is no direct mention whatsoever of confession in the books blurb–none, not one! How odd it was to learn from the book that the central experience in the pope’s life his discernment of his vocation after a confession on 21 September 1953.
If the focus upon confession seems to you even less likely to be popular than even the pope’s traditional Devil-talk then you’re in for another (un?)pleasant surprise.
How popular is shame these days? It is only, if ever, spoken of as a negative attitude that can only destroy the well-being of the person subject to it. However, in the classical understanding of shame expounded by the current pope it can be a revelatory experience. It reveals our dependence upon God’s mercy:
I can read my life in light of chapter 16 of the book of the prophet Ezekiel. I read those pages and I say: everything here seems written just for me. The prophet speaks of shame, and shame is a grace: when one feels the mercy of God, he feels a great shame for himself and for his sin. There is a beautiful essay by a great scholar of spirituality, Father Gaston Fessard, on the subject of shame in his book The Dialectic of the “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius. Shame is one of the graces that Saint Ignatius asks for during his confession of sins before Christ crucified.
The text from Ezekiel teaches us to be ashamed, it shows us how to feel shame: with all our history of wretchedness and sin, God remains faithful and raises us up. I feel this.
As you can see, if The Name of God is Mercy, then God is not a sentimental sap. Then again, it is also important to note how, as opposed to both “traditional” proponents and “liberal” opponents of shame, the shame here isn’t directed at some class of scapegoats, people out there who should be ashamed of themselves. Instead it is internalized. It is not some abstract “them” who need to feel ashamed, but us hypocrites, you fellow reader and I. We cannot confess for others (although my Grandmother did try for my Grandpa), but we can confess for ourselves, then change by depending upon the grace of God.
It is not that the normal social justice issues–the environment, economic exploitation, sexuality, the culture of death, et. al.–that were all important to St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI are unimportant to this book. They are important, but they can only begin to be addressed when we strip off all of our pretensions and give up the illusion of what Francis calls “the vanity of self-sufficiency.”
See how Francis works this out integrally in a passage that combines St. John of the Cross, social justice, and shame:
We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers live. We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness without letting ourselves be wrapped up in the darkness and influenced by it. Caring for outcasts and sinners does not mean letting the wolves attack the flock. It means trying to reach everyone by sharing the experience of mercy, which we ourselves have experienced, without ever caving in to the temptation of feeling that we are just or perfect. The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are of looking upon the many “wounded” we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy.
The truth of the matter is that social justice and mysticism have always gone together, which is why The Name of God is Mercy ends with a passage from The Dark Night of the Soul. It is a modern heresy to separate the two in the realms of mystic fables and the fighters for justice in the real world. Regaining this unity is the best way to overcome the phenomenon of prayer-shaming. The spiritual life makes a real difference.
Pope Francis also enlists Church Fathers, nearly all of them ecclesiastical realists and mystics rolled into one, by proposing a Church of shattered hearts:
The Church Fathers teach us that a shattered heart is the most pleasing gift to God.
Out of context this sounds about as perverse as praising shame and the confessional to contemporary ears. But then he continues:
It is a sign that we are conscious of our sins, of the evil we have done, of our wretchedness, and our need of forgiveness and mercy.
Mercy then is not something sentimental. It requires a heart-shattering continual conversion that passes through shame and the confessional. Of course it does not pass through these experiences once and for all. That would be a delusion of self-reliance.
This is why the pope proposes to his readers the possibility of asking for the “grace of feeling like a sinner,” especially when they don’t think they are sinners. Only such vulnerability will change the world, not empty political slogans without shame, confession, and heartbreak.
This is realism. Realism is mystical. Mysticism is difficult.
The mystical encounter with God in the confessional will shatter your heart again and again, if you’re blessed to receive that grace.
If not, you should be ashamed.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YL72VcbKSEY
If you want to learn more about the last few popes and their engagement with Communion and Liberation, then give Is the Pope Protestant? (On the Propes) a read.