A Latin American pope who's sticking to Italian

A Latin American pope who's sticking to Italian


  Italian remains the lingua franca at Vatican events

One rather surprising feature of Pope Francis’ first two weeks in office is that he’s chosen to speak almost exclusively in Italian.

This is a man who, according to the Vatican, is fluent in five languages – Spanish of course (he is Argentinian), as well as Italian, English, German and French. Yet at his first general audience this week, he skipped the traditional summary of his talk in various languages and stuck to italiano.

No one’s sure yet if this represents a change in communication policy or an easing into the role of pope. Luis Badilla, a Vatican Radio journalist who runs a popular blog called Il Sismografo, speculated that perhaps in his first days, the pope has not had time to prepare multi-lingual versions of his remarks.

There are other possible explanations, too. One is simplicity, which seems to be one of the guiding principles of this pontificate. Speeches or greetings that jump around in five or six languages require advance planning and editing, typically involving linguistic sections of the Secretariat of State.

Another reason is flexibility. Pope Francis frequently departs from his prepared text, and he clearly feels comfortable doing this in Italian, but not in all the other languages.

Some believe his exclusive use of Italian reflects his emphasis on the pope's identity as "bishop of Rome."

On a practical level, the pope is aware that most of those listening at general audiences or other major events in Rome are Italian speakers, and that anything really important will ultimately be translated into other languages. Italian remains the common language at the Vatican, for Roman Curia employees, journalists and anyone else who needs to know what’s going on.

And although previous popes, in particular Benedict XVI, John Paul II and Paul VI, made an effort to make remarks in multiple languages, the fact is that those comments were often difficult to hear or understand amid the cheering in the audience hall or through the loudspeakers in St. Peter’s Square.

If you asked people what the pope talked about at his general audience – which I sometimes did as a reporter – most foreigners in attendance didn't really know. They knew that he had given them a blessing in their language.

If the pope does stick to Italian, it could be that he’ll undo what has become a truism at the Vatican: that a modern pope has to be a polyglot.

12 comments (Add your own)

1. Bill Russell wrote:
The Holy Father is not fluent in English and French. He himself has explained to friends that he finds English extremely difficult and has minimal ability to speak it - same with French, with which he has a reading knowledge. This explains why he is keeping to Italian.

Thu, March 28, 2013 @ 12:20 PM

2. bender wrote:
By this reasoning, why not simply go back to saying everything in Latin?
So what if most of the world doesn't understand what is being said at the time and must wait for a translation?

Thu, March 28, 2013 @ 1:09 PM

3. Yae wrote:
It is okay with me if he speaks only Italian but I am also fluent in Spanish and would like to hear him address the Spanish speaking believers as well especially if he plans to have an impact in Latin America. I watched the Wednesday audience and he had a priest address the English speaking crowd so hopefully many more languages will follow. I would like to see it more inclusive as he settles into his role as pope.
He asked for prayers at the Chrism Mass so I will continue to pray for Papa Francis and for his well being in mind, body and soul.
Have a wonderful Easter!

Thu, March 28, 2013 @ 1:38 PM

4. Ellen Joyce wrote:
I read somewhere (sorry not to be more specific--I've been reading *everything* these last weeks!) that there was an actual Vatican statement (again--sorry to be vague). to the effect that the pope does speak French and English but needs time to become more comfortable making public statements in those languages. I am trying to imagine when his schedule is likely to allow for language practice, but in the meantime, I'll be happy to trust the translators and to refresh my rusty Italian.
Ellen Joyce
Beloit, WI

Thu, March 28, 2013 @ 5:04 PM

5. bong baldoza wrote:
his advisers has to brief him on that... though is the language spoken by majority in rome, let us remember that there are also other nationalities listening to him, unless an auditor is assigned to immediately translate what he is saying....

Thu, March 28, 2013 @ 7:43 PM

6. John Fisher wrote:
No he only speaks Italian and Spanish. His English isn't so good and his German well missing. It isn't amazing....his parents are Italian and he is in Italy.
There is always a tendency to exaggerate and distort to make the pope look good.
this pope is no intellectual and I think his ordination year 1969 comes through loud and clear.

Thu, March 28, 2013 @ 9:10 PM

7. Bob Barattini wrote:
Who says it is a truism that "a modern pope has to be a polyglot?" Of course there are many languages spoken by Catholics and others throughout the world, but the Holy Father can communicate with these even if he does not speake in their laqnguage.

The Vatican state, I believe, has two official languages. Latin and Italian.
Viva D'Italia.

Thu, March 28, 2013 @ 10:13 PM

8. Deacon John M. Bresnahan wrote:
Frankly, only knowing one language (English), I prefer to listen to a translator's good English rather than trying to translate someone's semi-English into understandable English. So I prefer the pope speak in any language rather than barely understandable English so translation has to be provided.

Fri, March 29, 2013 @ 4:30 PM

9. james wrote:
Because he's technically italian?

Fri, March 29, 2013 @ 11:49 PM

10. Bill Logan wrote:
My guess is that for English, French, and German he has at least reading ability. I'd be quite surprised if he wasn't able to speak German to some extent (even if very rusty) since he did his doctoral studies in Germany.

Sat, March 30, 2013 @ 7:07 PM

11. wrote:
Yes it is great and logical since his parents were Italian, so he is Italian and as Bishop of Rome he is in Italy! It also spares us the very tokenistic habit of the last 40 years of having to hear the same thing said in Swahili and Eskimo... I mean why not just use one language...?
I also as an English speaker get to filter out the guff and make excuses for his latin temperament and paradigm.

Mon, April 1, 2013 @ 6:20 AM

12. Minigazelle wrote:
I think the pope should attempt to speak other languages so that people from different nationalities feel "included" I mean we as English speakers may not care much since English is already so dominant but other people may feel excluded or neglected when the pope speaks only in Italian. I think either he speaks in a neutral language like Latin or the "international English" or at least attempt some greetings in offstage languages. And also especially for Spanish, I think he should at least say a few phrases in Spanish as he has his origin from Argentina an he is supposed to focus his priority on Latin America as that is where the majority of catholics are. If he doesn't speak Spanish, it's kind of weird and "disrespectful" lol I don't know something like that lol

Thu, April 4, 2013 @ 6:17 AM

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