Pope Francis Off-the-Cuff in Latin America

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Holy Father often can’t help setting aside prepared remarks and saying what comes to mind.

(photo: 2014 CNA/Bohumil Petrik)

QUITO, Ecuador — The world is about to see a new side of Pope Francis; and, interestingly, it could be the most intimate look yet at who he really is. For the first time since he was elected as the Successor of Peter, he’s visiting his native Latin America — and the difference will be on the tip of his tongue.

Already in his first speech at Quito’s Mariscal-Sucre airport for the welcoming ceremony, he was adding color to his speech in powerful lines like saying that the most vulnerable minorities “are the debt that Latin America still has.”

He also appeared to have a laugh about Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s extensive and highly political opening speech, in which he cited the Pope repeatedly. The Pope thanked him and said Correa had quoted him “too much.”

These and other additions to the prepared speeches are likely the first of many off-the-cuff comments to come.

“This is the first time he’s truly going to feel at home speaking his own language,” veteran Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki told CNA aboard the papal flight en route to Quito, Ecuador.

In 22 planned speeches and countless other, more personal encounters in the next week, Pope Francis will be speaking in his native tongue, Spanish, to Spanish-speaking crowds.

He’s visiting “his” people, the people of Latin America. It’s the land he calls the “Patria Grande,” the “Great Homeland.” While he won’t be stopping through his native Argentina, millions of people in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay will be treated to Pope Francis “unplugged.”

Alazraki is a veteran reporter. She has covered 130 papal flights dating back to her first, which was also St. John Paul II’s first, in January 1979. But she called this trip “unique.”

“Language, precisely, is the essence of this visit, because the Pope, as we’ve known him to do up until now, will improvise,” she said, almost in warning.

As the Pope traveled across the Pacific Ocean in an Alitalia-operated Airbus 330 aircraft, the director of the Holy See Press Office conceded that improvised papal sessions would be “facilitated” during the tour.

“How the Pope will want to make use of it, we’ll see,” Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said with a grin. “But it is certainly a particularly favorable condition for the communication between the Pope and the people.”

At rallies with schoolchildren or in audiences with large groups of priests at the Vatican, he often can’t help setting aside the prepared remarks and saying what comes to mind.

And Pope Francis has improvised heavily on previous trips, most often in Italian, but also in Spanish and even English.

But no more will he be limited by the constraints of speaking a second or third language for an extended period of time. He’ll be free to say exactly what he wants, no simultaneous interpreters needed, all week long.

While Spanish is the majority language across Latin America, it’s not the only one spoken in the three relatively small South-American nations he’ll be visiting. For some of the indigenous population there, what they call Castellano — Castilian Spanish — is actually their second language.

An incredible ethnic and linguistic diversity marks the Andean nations of Ecuador and Bolivia in particular. There, the indigenous Quechua and Aymara languages, respectively, are very much alive. In addition to Spanish, these two, and also Guarani, will be employed in papal liturgies in the coming days.

Journalists traveling with the Pope are either very happy to be following the Pope in Spanish-only this week, or quite concerned.

Those with some anxiety know from past experience that when the Pope goes off-the-cuff he can also employ words that most of the Spanish-speaking world wouldn’t know unless they were also raised in his part of Argentina. And then there are the new words he invents, in Shakespearian style.

“We all know that he loves his language. So that’s going to give him greater freedom and expressivity,” said Sergio Rubin, the Argentine co-author of El Jesuita, a 2010 biography of then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. The head of the religion section of Argentina’s daily Clarin newspaper is also going to be on the Pope’s heels all week, as part of the pool of newsmen and women on the papal flight.

“I think he could say some very interesting things and make very interesting gestures as well,” Rubin told CNA. He noted that the Pope has been to all three of these nations previously and is “profoundly aware of the social and religious problems” they face.

The papal biographer sees the current trip as a sneak preview of a possible 2016 visit to Argentina, which would allow the Pope to kick the language up yet another notch, rolling out his Buenos Aires’ dialect of Lunfardo, to the delight of locals and the trepidation of foreign journalists.

Rubin said the Pope will be in his element on this trip, returning to known territory. “I think he’s going to feel very comfortable, for many reasons … the issues of the excluded, the most dispossessed, the simplest,” he said. “In this context, you don’t forget that. This is very important for him and for the Church.”