VATICAN CITY (RNS) Italian comedian Roberto Benigni is best known for his goofy humor and slapstick sketches, but he may turn out to be the perfect pitchman for Pope Francis’ new book-length interview on mercy.
After all, Benigni won an Oscar in 1999 for his movie “Life Is Beautiful,” which improbably, and successfully, used humor to underscore the horrors of the Holocaust.
At a crowded launch for the book at the Vatican on Tuesday (Jan. 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. What Francis is doing is impressive … truly the medicine of mercy,” said Benigni, who quipped that he would do anything Francis asked, from being his driver to joining the Swiss Guard.
The comedian, who met privately with Francis on Monday, was joined at the event for “The Name of God Is Mercy” by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin; the director of the Vatican publishing house, the Rev. Giuseppe Costa; and a Chinese-born immigrant, 30-year-old Zhang Agostino Jianqing, who spoke about being sentenced to a prison term in Italy for a “grave error” committed when he was 19.
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While in prison Zhang underwent a conversion, taking the Italian name of the fourth-century saint, Augustine. “I am here with my story to witness how God’s mercy has changed my life,” he said.
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 “raises 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 Lampedusa, where the last of the last arrive,” he said, referring to the island between Sicily and the African coast where thousands of migrants fleeing chaos have sought refuge, or have drowned trying.
“And where did he open the holy door of the jubilee? In the Central African Republic, in Bangui, the poorest place,” he 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 so I understood that I had to become a comedian,” he said.
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 scandal 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.
Francis spoke with Tornielli about sexuality, vulnerable people and the scourge of corruption.
(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS)