VATICAN CITY — Fluency in English and other languages has long been considered a prerequisite for a pope.
Blessed Pope John Paul II arguably set the standard, learning as many as 12 languages and speaking eight of them fluently. Benedict XVI, his successor, was reputed to be fluent in seven and was particularly proficient in French, the first foreign language he learned.
But Pope Francis’ linguistic abilities are, by his own admission, significantly inferior. Apart from Spanish, his mother tongue, he knows German and Italian well, although he admits the former is rusty.
The Holy Father prefers not to publicly speak any languages other than Italian at general audiences, the summaries of which are now read by various officials in the Secretariat of State. This reluctance was also seen on Easter Day, when, after delivering his message urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world), he refrained from wishing a Happy Easter in 65 of the world’s languages — a custom begun by John Paul II.
Reasons behind this approach were revealed in a 2010 biography by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti of then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, called El Jesuita. In it, he explains that he understands the Italian dialect of his father and maternal grandparents who came from the Piedmont region in Italy.
Then-Cardinal Bergoglio also said he understood some of the Genoa dialect of northern Italy, but that almost all of it, taught to him by one of his uncles, is “off-color” and therefore unrepeatable.
Not being his first language, Pope Francis’ Italian is naturally not perfect, but he is proficient (some have noticed common, minor mistakes in his unscripted remarks).
As for his other languages, the Pope said in the biography: “I must say that I used to speak them, but do not speak them because of lack of practice. I used to speak French fairly well, and I got along in German.”
But he added: “What has always caused the most problems for me has been English, especially the phonetics.” The reason, he said, is because he’s “tone deaf.”
And yet Pope Francis even refrains from speaking his native Spanish at public events. Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told Catholic News Service April 2 that it was “pretty clear that he wishes to not discriminate” and show any favoritism by choosing to speak some languages and not others, even his mother tongue.
“Evidently, he doesn’t think it’s necessary — either for reasons of preparation or exertion — that he personally read all the summaries in the different languages,” Father Lombardi said. This would be in line with Pope Francis’ desire for simplicity.
Some see this as a welcome development. Vatican officials now speaking in the Pope’s stead will ensure his words are properly heard and, the Vatican hopes, understood. It could also have a minor impact on the choice of future papal candidates, who will no longer be penalized for not being polyglots, if in fact this was ever regarded as a significant handicap by the cardinal electors.
On the other hand, others argue that a non-English-speaking pope means that the papal message in English-speaking areas will lose some of the immediacy and familiarity that comes with hearing English spoken by the Holy Father. In traditionally Protestant countries such as Britain, for example, the papacy and the Church continue to be seen as something foreign, and the lack of a pope who speaks English may accentuate that perception.
However, as documented in a recent poll of churchgoing Catholics, his “shortcoming” hasn’t seemed to hurt his receptivity in the United States.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.