Comedian Roberto Benigni pitches Pope Francis’ book on mercy

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Italian actor Roberto Benigni, far right, takes a copy of Pope Francis' book "The Name of God is Mercy" as he arrives during a news conference for the launch of the book at the Vatican on January 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-BENIGNI, originally transmitted on Jan. 12, 2016.

Italian actor Roberto Benigni, far right, takes a copy of Pope Francis' book "The Name of God is Mercy" as he arrives during a news conference for the launch of the book at the Vatican on January 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-BENIGNI, originally transmitted on Jan. 12, 2016.

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.

Pope Francis meets Italian actor Roberto Benigni during a private audience for Pope Francis' book "The Name of God is Mercy" at the Vatican, on January 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters

Pope Francis meets Italian actor Roberto Benigni during a private audience for Pope Francis’ book “The Name of God is Mercy” at the Vatican, on January 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters


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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.


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“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)

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  • Larry

    There never going to anything Roberto Benigni does which will be half as embarrassing as “Life is Beautiful” or “Pinocchio”

  • Poor Roberto forgets the Catholic contribution to the Nazi evils
    which he railed against in his own films:

    1933 – Vatican Peace Treaty with Catholic Nazi Regime blessing WWII and Hitler’s Jewish Solution
    1942 – The Vatican-Argentina Rat Line – Monsignor Luigi Maglione’s hushed up emigration of 200,000 Catholic Nazi war criminals to South America to escape justice.

    “We shall eagerly cooperate with the Nazis…send them our Jews.”
    – Father Joseph Tiso,
    President of Slovakia 1944

    The cure for bad religion is not a different religion, but blasphemy which it richly deserves.

  • Fran

    The best book to read about mercy, why it is required by us, and how we can acquire and keep it, is found in God’s Word, the Bible.

    It also shows how merciful and forgiving God is toward us imperfect humans (just a few of his many grand qualities which we can imitate), since we were made by him in his image.

  • Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Vitamin Mercy is healing and empowering.