Understanding Pope Francis

There seems to be a certain amount of confusion among English-speaking Catholics over how to properly understand Pope Francis — and particularly how to understand the “off-the-cuff” homilies that he has been providing at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, as they are reported variously by Radio Vatican and L’Osservatore Romano.

I’ve no idea how much help the following will be, nor how many people will even see it, however it is certainly possible to make better sense of these homilies, and through this better understanding, to gain a better perspective on the actual personality and ministry of our Pope, in the face of the masses of disinformation that have (inevitably) started circulating about our Holy Father.

The Homilies

First of all, which source to use to make sense of them ?

Straight to the source — http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/cotidie/2013/index_it.htm (Italian)

1) The English-language translations of these homilies, even those provided at the Vatican website itself, have demonstrated that they are, at least for the time being, untrustworthy sources of information. Avoid them !!!

2) The Pope’s rhetoric is simultaneously Latinate and Italianate in nature, and his sense of humour is mischievous and ironic, so that a surefire way of misunderstanding these homilies is to read them quickly, in their poor English translation, and according to English or American expectations on how speeches should be constructed, and with the expectation that every single off-the-cuff word is to be taken 100% po-faced seriously. Instead, start your reading with the basic assumption that at least one disarming trait of humour will be provided in the homily, always remembering that you’re reading in a foreign language, translated or in the original, and read carefully, and trying NOT to engage your pre-conceptions on what the Pope must be saying. Try and remember how texts are constructed in Latin, or in 16th century literature, or perhaps as Shakespeare wrote them, because these are the sorts of rhetorics that the Pope is using, and NOT the pre-digested sound-byte rhetorics of our Mass Media.

3) There is a certain delightfully spontaneous baroque aesthetic in the Pope’s homilies that one should try and be sensitive to — this is an aesthetic with the direct purpose of causing listeners to approach its contents anew, afresh. It is NOT the type of magisterial exposition of theology and doctrine and of the related morals that Pope Benedict XVI provided for us with such consummate skill, BUT one should also understand that the inner questioning that the Pope’s rhetorics seek deliberately to foster in his listeners, and that many are confused by, is VERY firmly based on the magisterial teachings of the Pope’s immediate predecessor, both as Pontiff, and as the ex-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The baroque rhetorics are used to try and shake up our intellectual complacency, and try and revive in us the nature of the link between our Souls, our Faith, our Religion, the Revelation, God, and the nature of our vocations in this world.

4) The Pope is teaching us that an intellectualised religion is not really any kind of Christianity at all — but that the intellect should ALWAYS be a servant of the Catholic Religion, but never seek to define it according to its own terms, as ONLY the Revelation provides that definition. This, as many people haven’t quite realised, is also the beating heart of the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI !!!

5) Brush up on your Italian, or your Latin, or your other Romance languages, or by default, brush up on your Shakespeare and your Chaucer — the Italianate aesthetics that are redolent in Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff homilies can be understood better via a prism of thought that is closer to them than by trying to stick to the intellectual aesthetics of a modern UK or US Liberal Arts Education, which they are almost completely incompatible with.

The Spirituality

Pope Francis’ deep spirituality is perhaps most comparable among recent Popes to that of Pope John Paul I. And so it may easily seem to be both mysterious, and confusing, especially in the light of the extreme shortness of John Paul I’s Pontificate.

Pope Francis’ spirituality appears to be centred on a constant awakening to the presence within one of one’s soul, and the outpouring of its divine relationship with God, which in turn provides the living source of ALL proper action, in prayer, in Liturgy, in work, and speech, in homily, in thought, and in deed.

This is not the banal exuberance of a dancing charismatic, it is a deep and thoughtful, prayerful, and Faithful attention within to the Work of the Holy Spirit. It is a devotion that is intrinsically Trinitarian, deeply Marian, and of the highest nature of the Catholicity.

And this is the kind of very deep Faith that the Pope is teaching, instead of an “intellectualism without talent”, as he puts it, an “ethicism without beauty”, that seeks to reduce the Catholic Faith to its sole intellectual, moral, social, psychological components, but that would transform the Church into just another NGO.

Our souls are the children of God, not “adopted” from out of this material world and its worldliness, but vivified in the living relationship of Love with Our Father.

And everything that the Holy Father is teaching is derived from this Eternal Source of ALL Truth and ALL Beauty and ALL Love.

And then people are surprised that his teachings are “confusing” !!! There is nothing more confusing than God when He reaches past the intellectual falsehoods of our worldly pride towards the very intimacy of our Souls.


Pope Francis is NOT of course suggesting, nor am I, that one’s intellectuality should simply be cast by the wayside !!!

He is suggesting that the Intellect is useless if it is not the servant of one’s Soul, turned towards God.

To deeply understand Pope Francis’ rhetorics, always remember this : that if he asks us, explicitly or implicitly, to always keep our very souls always turned to God in the Holy Spirit and through Christ, that he himself is practicing this very ascesis. The Pope’s own intellect is properly ordered in its processes within this vivification of the Self in Faith, and to read his homilies and to try and understand this Pope via the dead letter of a simply formalistic rationality is to understand nothing either of Francis or of his homilies.

I am asking you to try and understand them in the light of the most child-like Faith that resides in the heart of our love for God and for the Church of His Christ. In the very light of what makes us Catholic Christians instead of just another organisation of intellectuals, moralists, and social workers.

In the light of our very Souls.

11 thoughts on “Understanding Pope Francis

  1. Jabba,

    This is very profound. I had to read it through (slowly) twice to fully capture your deep insights explaining how to comprehend Pope Francis’s teachings in his (by now) numerous homilies and speeches.
    In listening to Pope Francis, I think I had already SENSED much of what you say, but not all, and it is enlightening to have it laid out so clearly and logically, as you have done.

    No, I don’t know myself how many people know about your blog and will be able to read this excellent article for themselves, but I am sending the link on to members of my family and friends.

  2. Well Jabba, there is clearly only one measure to be taken that will resolve this.

    You must translate them for the rest of us.

    Your reward will not be on this earth, of course, but…

    • You must translate them for the rest of us

      You know, I’ve actually been pondering doing exactly that … (though I’d only do it for the off-the-cuff homilies — the Pope’s less informal homilies or speeches do tend to stick far closer to script, as well as generally being well translated)

  3. OK — as to the question of a project to re-translate these homilies, I need to consider both the intellectual property issues (except that it seems to me that these homilies belong to the Church, and therefore to all of us), and more importantly the moral and theological difficulties of such a project.

    The existing translations OTOH quite clearly belong to the Vatican.

    There is a difference between providing some ad hoc clarifications — and seeking to do so in any kind of manner that would be as systematic as it would be both theologically and literally accurate.

    It is possible that such a project might require an explicit/implicit permit of the Holy See.

    It is just as possible that such divine work cannot be subjected to any worldly considerations at all.

  4. I am beginning to think, following Pope Francis’ recent interview that is causing so many waves — LINK to the interview in its original Italian http://www.laciviltacattolica.it/articoli_download/3216.pdf — is that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s teaching on how to interpret the Vatican II Council, to interpret its teachings according to a hermeneutic of continuity rather than a hermeneutic of rupture, may also be directly applicable to the question on how to properly interpret Pope Francis.

    One interesting thing in the original Italian that I did not see in either the excerpts published in the English and French is that Pope Francis describes himself as a mystic.

    This fact alone would make some of his statements somewhat hard to understand.

    I take note from the English translation of the interview, however, that its approximations compared to the original sense of the text indicate clearly that there continue to be particular problems with the English translations of the Pope’s teachings, even though there does seem to have been some improvement in the translations of his off-the-cuff homilies from Santa Marta.

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