Pope in the air – on understanding papal communication

Ah, the joy of papal in-flight press conferences. They are not his invention, but under Pope Francis they’ve become something both looked forward to and feared by many. His most recent one, on the return flight from Mexico, was no exception.

Vatican Pope Zika

When it comes to communication, Pope Francis’ preference seems to lie with the verbal variety. In conversations, homilies and speeches he relies on animation, vocal emphasis, gestures and spontaneous interjections to get his message across. This makes him a fascinating voice to listen to, but in writing, I find, he is more of a challenge. There are exceptions, such as his encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato si’ or the Bull Misericordiae vultus, which are intended to be read rather than heard. But when we read his daily homilies, transcripts of interviews and speeches (certainly the ones he gives without preparation), something gets lost, something that is there in forms of communication other than speech.

Pope Francis commented on a variety of topics on his flight back to Rome last Thursday, including some which were bound to get journalists writing: sexual abuse, immigration, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, politics (Mexican, Italian, American), abortion, divorce, forgiveness… And in a transcription, especially a translated one (such as here), we can see traces of the interjections but the non-verbal communication is completely absent, of course. And a significant part of the message is lost as a result. This is something to keep in mind when reading what the Pope has said.

Some commenters state that Popes do not issue authoritative magisterial teaching in airplane interviews, and they are right. But they are not right in automatically disregarding such interviews as meaningless for that reason. Pope Francis has not changed any part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and he never intended to. We should not read his comments as such. We should read (or, to get the full message, hear) them as an effort by the Holy Father to explain something, to teach about what the Church teaches and how she acts or speaks in certain situations or on certain topics.

It is important to also have this in the back of our heads when listening to the Pope in a press conference. The Pope does. His comments are made on the presumption that Church teaching is given. It is not made or changed in the interview, but underlies whatever is being said. And of course the comments can be debated, criticised, applauded or even ignored. They should, however, never be made out to be something they are not: doctrinal statements. The Pope has other channels for those.

Photo credit: Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP

Advertisements

Declaration of Pope and Patriarch, now in Dutch

A brief notification that I have completed my Dutch translation of the declaration by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, signed three days in Havana. Find the full text in English here, and my translation via this link.

naamloos
^Pope and Patriarch exchange copies of their declaration (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

For a Dutch museum, a letter from the Pope

In addition to today’s great surprise of the upcoming meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill comes another surprising communication from the Holy Father, this time to a local museum in the Dutch city of Gouda.

MTE5NDg0MDU1NDAyNDgxMTY3Starting tomorrow, Museum Gouda is hosting an exhibition on the late medieval Dutch theologian, priest and humanist Desiderius Erasmus, presenting him as a source of modern ideas like tolerance and freedom of conscience. The exhibition not only gives an overview of Erasmus’ life and work and the Europe of his day, but also shows some personal effects, such as a ring, chalice and Bible he owned.

A unique part of the exhibition is a letter from Pope Francis (probably written on his behalf, judging from the excerpt shared below), in which the Holy Father discusses the meaning of Erasmus’ thought for the Europe of today. While the full text has not been published (you’ll have to go see the exhibition for that), the website of the museum features the following excerpt:

“The Pope prays that the exhibition may show that Christian faith and true humanism are not opposing forces, but that they both serve human dignity. As a believer, Erasmus proclaimed an authentic humanism in a time of great social change. Such humanism is equally necessary in our modern time. Our time is also marked by great social changes. The human person, who needs our care and attention, is of inestimable value. Erasmus reminds us of the necessary solidarity with one another, of the necessity to transcend contradictions and conflicts and the search for a new unity, pluralistic and inspiring, in which the sum is more than its parts. Solidarity is an indispensable principle for establishing social friendship.”

The exhibition “Erasmus: I move for no one” runs from 6 February to 26 June in Museum Gouda.