The Italian actor, comedian, screenwriter and director Roberto Benigni, who figures prominently in the story I feature today, came to my attention in the amazing film, “Life is Beautiful.” I’ve seen him a number of times on television in Italy and well remember his performace at the 1998 Academy Awards when he won for Best Actor in that 1997 film, jumping from seat to seat, over the heads and shoulders of his fellow actors, to reach the stage.
I also remember him from a very brief sentence on a desk calendar I had a few years ago: “Did you know that the Bible is the only book whose Author also created its readers?!”
A VENETIAN CARDINAL, A TUSCAN COMEDIAN AND A PRISONER FROM CHINA EXPLAIN MERCY
Did you hear the one about how a Venetian cardinal, a Tuscan comedian and a prisoner from China explain mercy?
It sounds like a line from a comedy routine, right? And it was, in part!
Roberto Benigni, Italian comic and actor par excellence was in Rome Tuesday for the presentation of the book, “The Name of God is Mercy,” a conversation between Pope Francis and a friend of many years, vaticanista Andrea Tornielli (on right in photo).
He was the final guest to talk about the book, following talks by Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of the Holy See Press Office, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of State, Fr. Giuseppe Costa, head of the Vatican publishing house and Zhang Agostino Jianqing, a Chinese prisoner in a Padua jail.
Fr. Lombardi spoke about the book in very endearing terms and heartfelt comments, and was the moderator of this morning’s event as well.
I found the entire morning to be fascinating, and discovered, at the end of the presentations, that I had been at the Augustinian conference center for well over two hours and had never once looked at my watch. That has never happened in a press conference I have attended!
The star of the day – and the most awaited guest, judging by the applause when he arrived with Cardinal Parolin and the avalanche of photographers and TV cameras – was Roberto Benigni (you will surely remember him for “Life is Beautiful”). And he did not disappoint with his presentation!
For me, however, the most compelling account this morning was that of the Chinese prisoner who told his personal story, highlighting his encounter with “God’s mercy” – including his conversion from Buddhism to Christianity. He is in prison in Padua but has been in Rome for two days, and yesterday was one of the guests who met the Holy Father at the official presentation of Tornielli’s book. Agostino never directly explained why he had been given 20 years in prison but at one point, in the account of his life, did use the word “victim.”
He said “I am from a Buddhist family. In 1997, at the age of 12, I arrived in Italy with my father. I was studying but I got bored at school. I kept running away, my behavior got worse, I fought with my parents who never gave me money to have fun. I became violent and superficial. I was concentrating only on having a good time, money and girls.”
Without going into detail, he told how he was condemned to 20 years in prison and it was in prison he converted to Christianity, thanks to help given by his Buddhist mother.
Fr. Lombardi, who had previously noted Pope Francis’ love for prisoners and his frequent visits to prisons, added: “Yesterday, when Agostino met the Pope, he gave him a photo of him with his friends and brothers in prison with their signatures and their words to the Pope and Pope Francis himself wrote a beautiful dedication, saying he was close to them, prayed for them and asked them to pray for him.”
When it was Benigni’s turn to speak, he said, “Pope Francis is a marvelous revolutionary.” The Tuscan comic said he was very emotional when he realized he was “in the smallest state of the world with the greatest man in the world.”
“Pope Francis walks and walks and never ever stops. He is taking the entire Church towards a place that we don’t think about anymore, towards Christianity, towards Jesus Christ, towards the Gospel. And how does he do this? He does it through mercy, which is not a mushy thing but a severe virtue. Francis is always moving, he goes from the least to the least.” Benigni highlighted the Pope’s visit to Lampedusa and the opening of the Holy Door in Bangui.
And Benigni himself never stopped. His rapid fire talk, continuous smile and nonstop hand movements and gesticulating are his hallmarks – and they were in full force today, especially when he mentioned the Pope’s name, or the words ‘mercy’ and ‘joy’ and ‘love’.
Lombardi noted the reciprocal esteem that Pope Francis feels for Benigni when, in his last homily of 2014, he spoke of the actor – though not by name – calling him “a great Italian artist,” who was then involved in a “Ten Commandments” special for television.
Benigni said, “only Pope Francis could think of presenting this book with a Venetian cardinal, a Chinese prisoner and a Tuscan comic.”
Continuing his exuberant presentation, he said, “you cannot speak in moderation about this Pope.”
The comic said, “when I was little, I wanted to be a priest. In school I was asked, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I answered, “the Pope.” Well, everyone began to laugh and then I understood I had to be a comedian!”
And the hundreds of guests in the Augustinian, including Fr. Lombardi and Cardinal Parolin, laughed with him.
The Tuscan actor and comedian then spoke of the telephone call received from the Vatican about possibly talking at today’s presentation. “As soon as I heard the words ‘His Holiness would like…’, I didn’t even want to hear the rest of the sentence and I immediately said ‘yes’. I’m ready to be a Swiss guard, the Pope’s driver, whatever Francis needs.”
As to the book, Benigni said, “it is so beautiful” and “so full of mercy, you could sell it by the pound.” “It is also aimed at nonbelievers. Life is an eternal struggle between those who believe and those who don’t believe, between love and no love and loving meaning depending on someone who could be taken away from us. What is this divine risk?
He added: “The text raises our hearts without watering down our brain. Mercy is not a firm virtue seated on a chair: it is active, it never stops for a second. Mercy goes to sinners and to the poor. It is filled with joy, joy in pain. These two are the weight- bearing columns of Christianity. We must challenge the unhappy, we must love happy people who are humble and joyful and close to God.”
Noting the first miracle of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, which he said was his favorite Gospel, Benigni spoke of the healing of St. Peter’s mother-in-law, saying, “you know he healed her because afterwards his mother-in-law would cook for all of them. Jesus so enjoyed the joys of life.”
(Vatican Radio reported that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, on Tuesday expressed his sorrow for the terrorist attack which took place in Istanbul, Turkey. “What is happening [in Turkey] pains us. What is happening there, what continues to repeat itself, confirms that the best medicine in the face of these evils is always mercy.”
At least 10 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack Tuesday morning in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, near the city’s famous Blue Mosque.
His words came in response to a sideline question at the presentation of “The Name of God is Mercy.” In the book, the Holy Father answers 40 questions posed by Andrea Tornielli, and is divided into nine chapters.)