• John Thavis

A Latin American pope who’s sticking to Italian

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.

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