VATICAN CITY – Oscar-winning actor and director Roberto Benigni gave Pope Francis two thumbs up Tuesday, delivering one of his rapid-fire monologues and praising the pope as a fountain of mercy who is "dragging the whole church toward Christianity."
At perhaps the most unusual Vatican book launch ever, Benigni was joined by the Vatican secretary of state, the Vatican spokesman and the Vatican publisher, as well as a Chinese prison inmate, to premier "The Name of God is Mercy." Francis' book-length conversation with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli is being released in 86 countries as part of the pope's Holy Year of Mercy.
Benigni, whose 1999 "Life is Beautiful" won three Oscars, joked that he wanted to be a priest as a child but realized he had to become a comic instead after friends laughed when he said he wanted to be pope.
In recent years, Benigni has entertained television audiences in Italy with poignant monologues spliced with dramatic readings of Dante, the Italian constitution, and most recently, the 10 Commandments. The performances, carried on RAI state television, have shown him to be a man of obvious humor but also one of deep faith.
It was his Christmastime performance on the 10 Commandments that earned Benigni a phone call from the pope and an invitation to help launch the book.
"As soon as they called me and said, 'the Holy Father would like...' 'YES!' I said without letting them finish. Whatever he needs: If he needs a Swiss Guard, a driver for the popemobile, anything at all for this pope, I am ready. I will never say no."
Gesturing wildly, Benigni praised Francis for living the message of mercy, going to visit the "least of the least" in Lampedusa, ground zero in Europe's migration crisis, and launching his jubilee year of mercy with the "poorest of the poorest of the poor" in Central African Republic.
"He's a fountain, a waterfall of mercy," Benigni said. "In such an unrecognizable world, that wants hatred and condemnation, Francis responds with mercy."
Benigni, who delivered his memorable Oscar acceptance speech after clambering over the chairs of the audience, said Francis is clearly a pope on the move, "dragging the whole church toward Christianity."
The high-profile book launch was a clear indication of the importance the Vatican places on the book and Francis' overall message of mercy. The event featured a Chinese man who converted to Catholicism last year while serving a 20-year prison sentence in Italy.
Francis, who has made prison ministry a mainstay of his life's vocation, has directed the jubilee year in a special way to prison inmates, saying God's mercy extends to them as well.
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