The Church of Mercy
By Pope Francis
Published by Loyola Press, 2014
Review copy provided by publisher
Review by Ida Vega-Landow
This slender philosophical book is a collection of speeches by Pope Francis, dating from April to November 2013. My impression of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is that he is a good, kind man with a genuine faith in God, and a genuine interest in the welfare of the poor, not just in saving their souls, but their bodies as well. He proves this in Part Eight, Chapter 30 of his book, “The Cult of the God of Money”, in which he deplores the wastefulness of this throwaway culture of ours and the rampant consumerism that leads to so much waste: “This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs, which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families suffer hunger and malnutrition…Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out, it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry!”
Like Jesus, he makes “all things new”, reaches out to people with his vision of the Lord and his personal interpretation of the gospel. He simplifies the Bible and explains it in a warm, folksy way reminiscent of Jesus’ parables. That’s why it annoys me so much when I see how the Vatican’s spin doctors keep trying to maintain deniability of his statements, because they’re so afraid of change. In the July 19th issue of The Tablet, a Catholic newsletter distributed in Brooklyn where I live and attend church, an article by Francis X. Rocca quotes Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, who seems to be trying to underplay the seriousness of the issues that His Holiness discussed with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari. “…Father Lombadi expressed particular skepticism about two statements attributed to Pope Francis: a claim that some cardinals have been guilty of sexually abusing children and a vow to “find solutions” to the “problem” of priestly celibacy.” I can understand the good father’s desire to defend fellow clergymen from as yet unproven accusations, but why does he have to make our pope look like a liar in the process? He even goes so far as to state that the article “should be considered faithful on the whole to the mind of the pope, but not necessarily in its particular words and the accuracy of its details.”
Such waffling is unworthy of one who is supposed to serve the Church and its duly elected and anointed pontiff. Is he trying to give the impression that His Holiness is too unworldly or inexperienced to know what he’s talking about? The man is a Latino, for Christ’s sake! I can safely say for a certainty that Latinos tend to be very earthy and honest about sex. His Holiness certainly does not give the impression of having been sheltered from the facts of life. Nor do I believe him to be too old to understand why healthy young men should be obliged to take a vow of celibacy during their prime, at an age when clergymen from other religions are taking wives and raising families.
Speaking of families, Pope Francis shows himself to be a devotee of true family values. In another homily from Part Eight of his book, “The Logic of Power and Violence”, at the vigil of Prayer for Peace, September 7, 2013, he says: “It is exactly in this chaos that God asks the man’s conscience, “Where is Abel your brother?” and Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) We too are asked this question; it would be good for us to ask ourselves as well: am I really my brother’s keeper? Yes, you are your brother’s keeper! To be human means to care for one another! But when harmony is broken, a metamorphosis occurs: the brother who is to be cared for and loved becomes an adversary to fight and kill. What violence occurs at that moment, how many conflicts, how many wars have marked our history! We need only look at the suffering of so many brothers and sisters. This is not a question of coincidence, but the truth: we bring about the rebirth of Cain in every act of violence and in every war. All of us!” Words to remember in light of the current conflict in Gaza between Jews and Muslims, in what is supposed to be the holy land for both their religions.
The pope is also not too proud to ask for help from our Blessed Mother Mary, to whom he devotes three whole sermons in Part Ten, “Mary, Mother of Evangelization”. The Protestants may deplore how we revere Jesus’ mother, but we Catholics know how to give the lady her due as the bearer of our salvation. As Pope Francis proclaimed at the Evangelii gaudium on November 24, 2013: “In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak, but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves. Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for “bringing down the mighty from their thrones” and “sending the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice. She is also the one who carefully keeps “all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).”
There is much to ponder in this book, for Catholics and other Christians who try to live by Christ’s teachings in the modern world. Even non-Christians will find plenty to ponder and agree with in Pope Francis’ philosophy. Let us hope that the Holy Father is able to maintain his virtues of simplicity and faith in humanity despite his elevation to the highest position in the Catholic Church, in what is considered one of the most decadent cities in the world. Some cynical observers, both in the church and in the media, seem to be waiting to see how soon he will succumb to the lure of worldly pleasures and wielding power for its own sake. My prayer is that Pope Francis will be like his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who rejected all the pleasures and treasures of the world for God’s sake. He is already like him in his love of the poor. May he be as much of an inspiration to the rest of us as Saint Francis has been to him.