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Pope Francis wants to hear your confession

Review of "The Name of God is Mercy" by Pope Francis (translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky)

Pope Francis during a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican, to mark Epiphany, on Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
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By Pope Francis

(translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky)

Random House. 151 pp. $26.99

In his nearly three years as the bishop of Rome, vicar of Christ, and heartthrob of disaffected Catholics and secular progressives everywhere, Pope Francis has been bedeviled by one question: How enduring and meaningful is the shift he is bringing to the church?

Lefties enthralled with his “who am I to judge” approach still worry that Francis embodies more a change in attitude than in fundamentals; that he is merely altering perceptions, not doctrines. Conservative Catholics who prefer their popes with a side of brimstone may find some solace — though probably not much — in that distinction.

In “The Name of God Is Mercy,” a Q&A between Pope Francis and Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, published Tuesday, the pope provides something of an answer, mainly by contending that the premise of the question is all wrong. In Francis’s telling, legalistic matters of doctrine don’t override those of practice and ministry. If anything, it’s the other way around.

Throughout church history, “the scholars of the law. . . represent the principal opposition to Jesus; they challenge him in the name of doctrine,” Francis says. Those obsessed with upholding church doctrine can often be “hypocrites. . . who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries.” For true grace, he contends, all you need is God’s love. If you’re after doctrinal rigor, go break bread with the hypocrites.

Placing him in American political terms, Francis comes across as the executive-order pontiff, accomplishing what he can under his own authority rather than devoting himself to the battle to transform laws and precepts. And in “The Name of God Is Mercy,” Francis makes his case through incessant and personal story-telling — he has the heart of a homilist, for sure — and a focus on the sacrament that many Catholics find discomforting: confession.

Tornielli, a veteran Vatican reporter and correspondent for La Stampa, has previously authored a sympathetic biography of Francis, and the questions organizing this new volume are invariably kind as well. You’ll find no inquiries into the church’s sexual abuse scandal, not even queries on Francis’s efforts to reform the ossified Vatican bureaucracy. Instead, Tornielli focuses on the pope’s call for a Holy Year of Mercy and Francis’s beliefs about grace and forgiveness. “Why does God never tire of forgiving us?” is a typically generous question. (Canonically, that’s a Softball in Veritae.)

“Mercy is God’s identity card,” Francis declares early on. In his view, the church “does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them on the streets, she gathers them in, she embraces them.”

Note the word “wounded.” Francis regards sin not as a stain on the soul — “going to confession is not like taking your clothes to the dry-cleaner,” he scoffs — but as a wound that “needs to be treated, healed.” One way to accomplish that is, yes, through the sacrament of reconciliation. Confession isn’t especially popular; among American Catholics, 30 percent say they go to confession less than once per year, and nearly half say they never do, according to a 2008 Georgetown University survey. As a kid, I always thought of it as among the creepier of my faith’s practices: enter a darkened room, whisper your shame to an adult on the other side of a sliding screen window, expunge your guilt with prayer. Sin and repeat.

Francis wants to rehabilitate this sacrament, on both sides of the screen. “Confessing to a priest is a way of putting my life into the hands and heart of someone else, someone who in that moment acts in the name of Jesus,” the pope answers when Tornielli asks if simply repenting to God in private is enough. “It’s a way to be real and authentic, we face the facts by looking at another person and not in the mirror.” But Francis has advice for the priestly confessors as well. “In a dialogue with a confessor we need to be listened to, not interrogated,” the pope cautions. “Confessionals should never be torture chambers.” He also worries that the confessors can show an “excess of curiosity, especially in sexual matters,” a rare allusion to priestly misconduct. “We must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty.”

Of course, to confess your sins, you must perceive yourself as fallen, as failing to uphold the standards or virtues someone else has laid out. If someone doesn’t feel like a sinner, Francis says simply, “I would advise him to ask for the grace of feeling like one!” The church is not there to “condemn people” for their sins, he says, “but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.”

But you need to want it, he says. Francis departs from his relentlessly hopeful tone when discussing the reasons some reject mercy: “Maybe you prefer your wounds, the wounds of sin, and you behave like a dog, licking your wounds. . . . There is pleasure in feeling bitter, an unhealthy pleasure.”

And here’s some news: Pope Francis still listens to confessions. “I always tried to take time with confessions, even when I was a bishop and cardinal,” he recalls. “Now I hear confessions much less, but once in a while I still do.” (I bet only big-time sinners get to confess with the pope.) And apparently he is pretty generous, too. “When I heard confessions, I always thought about myself, about my own sins, and about my need for mercy, so I tried to forgive a great deal,” he says.

Tornielli asks the pope if mercy and doctrine are ever opposed, and Francis’s preference remains clear. “I will say this: mercy is real. It is the first attribute of God. Theological reflections on doctrine or mercy may then follow.” He recounts Gospel passages of Jesus contradicting, or least not upholding, the Law of Moses about marginalizing lepers (Jesus embraced them) or stoning adulterers (Jesus says that only one without sin should cast the first stone). “This is the example we need to follow,” Francis argues, “and in so doing we overcome prejudice and rigidity.”

“The Name of God Is Mercy” reminds me of John Paul II’s 1994 book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” also published as an informal and uplifting conversation with a journalist. But while John Paul II relied on Gospel passages, theological scholars and past papal pronouncements, Francis enjoys sharing personal stories of God’s grace and mercy in the lives of parishioners from his native Argentina, people he has known and who have recognized themselves as sinners.

He tells the story of an indigent mother of three who became a prostitute and was grateful less for church charity and more for the dignity of Francis always calling her señora (“Mrs.”); of people visiting their jailed relatives, loving them through all; and even of Saint Ignatius, founder of the Pope’s Jesuit order, who as a wounded soldier in the army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V asked a fellow soldier to hear his sins, even if he could not absolve him. “The need to face another person and confess was so strong that he decided to do it like that,” Francis notes. “It is a beautiful lesson.”

A 47-page appendix, reproducing Francis’s official call for a Holy Year of Mercy as “an extraordinary moment of grace and spiritual renewal,” pushes this volume toward the length of a book, just barely. Like any good homilist, Francis understands that shorter is better. Maybe that’s why he chooses not to dwell on doctrine. “In the evening of life,” the pope concludes, “we will be judged on love alone.”

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