ROME — Since he was elected, there have been few occasions in Rome when Pope Francis hasn’t been the center of attention. Yet on Tuesday at a presentation of the pontiff’s new book, Italian actor Roberto Benigni, best known to Americans for the Oscar-winning 1997 movie “Life is Beautiful,” stole the show.
Granted, Francis wasn’t actually present at the event, held at the Augustinian Patristic Institute just outside St. Peter’s Square. But his book, and everyone else on hand for the occasion, was overshadowed by the comedian — including Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, who was seated next to Benigni.
From the moment he entered the auditorium, Benigni had everyone laughing by posing with the book, “The Name of God is Mercy,” as if it were a prize he’d longed for his entire life, and then launching into an impromptu comedy set.
“The Vatican is the world’s smallest state, but has the biggest man living there,” he said. “When they called me for this, they started, ‘Pope Francis wants you.’ I said yes,” he continued. “I would do anything for Pope Francis: Swiss guard, Pope-mobile driver, anything!”
“When I was a boy, when people asked what I wanted to be when growing up, I’d always answer ‘pope’,” he said. “Since everyone laughed at me, I understood I had to be a comedian.”
Speaking about the pope’s message of mercy, the actor said that “mercy doesn’t sit in an easy chair; it’s active, always moving, like the pope,” who, according to him, is the live representation of the book, portraying mercy by constantly going out to those on the outskirts and the poor.
Benigni also said that the fact that there’s no solidarity or joy without suffering is a paradox, and that it’s from here that mercy is born.
“Mercy is born in pain,” he said.
On Francis, Benigni said, “He’s bringing the whole Church with him, toward Christianity, he’s pulling it behind him. In the midst of the pain of the world, he’s looking for mercy. In a world that wants fear, condemnation, Francis responds with mercy, with pain.”
Later, Benigni provided an impassioned reading of the last passages of the pope’s new book, a set of reflections by Francis on his special jubilee Year of Mercy, running from Dec. 8, 2015, to Nov. 20, 2016.
While Benigni may have been the star on Tuesday, he wasn’t the only one who left an impression.
Zhang Agostino Jianquing, a Chinese inmate in an Italian prison, had everyone tearing up while sharing the story of his conversion to Catholicism while serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Jianquing said that after spending his youth only interested in partying, misbehaving, money, and women, “God’s mercy changed my life.”
Born in a Buddhist family in China, he moved to Italy with his father when he was 12, where he was reunited with his mother. Soon after, he said, he started skipping school, going out at night, and demanding that his parents gave him money “to have fun.”
When he was 19, he was sentenced to prison for being an accessory to murder. He was the only Chinese person there, and by his own words, barely knew any Italian and had no way to ask for help.
“The only comforting thing during those days was grabbing a pen to write to my mother, asking her for forgiveness time and time again,” Jianquing said.
His mother traveled 400 miles every week to visit him in prison, “and every time she cried,” he said. Jianquing said it was seeing the “sea of tears” his mother was shedding for his mistakes that led him to want to become a better person.
Eventually, he said, he met a volunteer in prison who helped him out and introduced him to a group of Christian inmates.
In 2015 he was baptized, confirmed, and received First Communion. He could have requested a permit to leave the prison for this occasion, but decided against it, instead asking for a priest to lead the ceremony in the prison.
“Jesus came looking for me in prison,” he said.
He took the name Agostino as his middle name, after St. Augustine.
“I was personally touched by the tears his mother shed over his mistakes, like the river of tears my mother cried for mine,” Jianquing said.
Also on hand for the launch, which was moderated by Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was Andrea Tornielli, the journalist who interviewed Francis for the book. He told a story about Pope John XXIII, who in 1958 visited a prison, the first time a pope had done so in at least 100 years.
At the end of his prison Mass, an inmate approached the pope crying, falling on his knees, and asking the pontiff if his words of hope also applied to him.
The pope, Tornielli said, helped the prisoner get up and hugged him.
“I believe this hug,” Tornielli said, “is the best synthesis of what Christianity truly is.”