Italian comedian Roberto Benigni is best known for his intentionally goofy humor and slapstick sketches, but he was chosen to be the pitchman for Pope Francis’ new book on mercy, The Name of God Is Mercy, when it was presented to the press in Rome in January.
Benigni won an Oscar in 1999 for his movie Life Is Beautiful. That film used humor to underscore the horrors of the German concentration camps during World War II.
At a crowded launch for the book at the Vatican on January 12, Benigni again mixed levity with seriousness as he told the audience that Pope Francis is “so full of mercy, you could sell it by the pound.”
“It’s a social and political challenge,” Benigni said. “What Francis is doing is impressive… truly the medicine of mercy,” he said, adding that he would do anything Francis asked, from being his chauffer to joining the Swiss Guard.
The comedian, who also had a private meeting with Francis in addition to presenting the book, was joined at the presentation by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and by the director of the Vatican publishing house, Fr. Giuseppe Costa, and also by a Chinese-born immigrant to Italy, 30-year-old Zhang Agostino Jianqing, who spoke about being sentenced to a prison term in Italy for a crime he committed when he was 19.
While in prison, Zhang underwent a conversion, taking the Italian name of the fourth-century saint, Augustine.
“I am here with my story,” he said, “to witness to how God’s mercy has changed my life.”
In his remarks, Benigni said the Pope was pulling the entire Church toward the Christian path of mercy, and he described the new book, which is a series of interviews with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, as a dialogue that “lifts up our hearts without watering down our brains.”
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a book you can put in your pocket; it’s like having the Pope in your pocket,” said Benigni, whose Academy Award for best actor was an unusual achievement for a nominee in a foreign-language film.
While mercy has become central to discussions at the Vatican in recent weeks, owing to the special Holy Year of Mercy that the pontiff launched in December, Benigni said this theme had been central to Francis’ ministry since he was elected Pope in 2013. “Where did he publicly go when his papacy started? To (the Mediterranean island of) Lampedusa, where the ‘last of the last’ (African boat-people) come ashore,” he said. Lampedusa, an island between Sicily and the African coast, is where thousands of migrants fleeing chaos have sought refuge — or have drowned in the ocean trying.
“And where did he open the holy door of the Jubilee? In the Central African Republic, in Bangui, the poorest place,” Benigni said. “To find an affinity with the world’s pain, with suffering, because there — through pain — mercy is born.
“Francis is full of mercy, like a fountain, a waterfall of mercy,” added Benigni, who also joked that as a child he told people he wanted to grow up to be Pope. “But everyone would start laughing,” he said, “so I understood that I had to become a comedian.”
While the new book addresses its central theme at length, Francis also highlights a number of key issues that have been debated during his papacy. They include the fate of divorced Catholics, with Francis describing one case in which a priest in Argentina demanded $5,000 to grant an annulment. The Pope has recently sought to make it easier for Catholics who meet the necessary requirements to be granted an annulment.