Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
March 13, 2018 // Vatican

Wonder and wit: Five years of Pope Francis’ unique turns of phrase

Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A native-Spanish speaker who grew up with Italian-speaking relatives in Argentina, Pope Francis has a striking way with words.

Bringing a background in literary themes and devices with him to the papacy five years ago, the pope has shown himself to be a master of metaphor and allegory.

Argentina’s flag is seen as Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in this April 3, 2013, file photo. Pope Francis, a native of Argentina, is the first pope from the Americas. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

His cross-cultural and eclectic knowledge of literature and cinema has supplied him with numerous visual elements that he mixes and matches with a religious message, creating such compound concoctions as “the babysitter church” to describe a parish that doesn’t encourage active evangelizers but only worries about keeping parishioners inside, out of trouble.

“Armchair Catholics,” meanwhile, don’t let the Holy Spirit lead their lives. They would rather stay put, safely reciting a “cold morality” without letting the Spirit push them out of the house to bring Jesus to others.

The Ignatian spirituality that formed him as a Jesuit also comes through many of his turns of phrase. Just as a Jesuit seeks to use all five senses to find and experience God, the pope does not hesitate to use language that involves sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

And so, he urges the world’s priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of sheep” by living with and among the people in order to share Christ with them, and he tells his cardinals that all Catholic elders need to share with the young their insight and wisdom, which become like “fine wine that tastes better with age.”

No chorus is as wonderful as the squeaks, squeals and banter of children, he once said before baptizing 32 babies in the Sistine Chapel, assuring the parents that the commotion and chaos of new life was not only welcome, but wonderful.

The pope’s visual vocabulary dips into the everyday with sayings and scenarios from daily routines: like sin being more than a stain; it is a rebellious act against God that requires more than just a trip “to the laundromat and have it cleaned.” Even country living holds some lessons. He once told parishioners to bother their priests like a calf would pester its mother for milk. Always knock “on their door, on their heart so that they give you the milk of doctrine, the milk of grace and the milk of guidance.”

Food and drink hold numerous lessons. For example, to convey the corrosive atmosphere a bitter, angry priest can bring to his community, the pope said such priests make one think, “This man drinks vinegar for breakfast. Then, for lunch, pickled vegetables. And, in the evening, a nice glass of lemon juice.”

Christians must not be boastful and shallow like a special sweet his Italian grandmother would prepare for Fat Tuesday, he has said. Explaining how it is made from a very thin strip of pastry, the crunchy dessert bloats and swells in a pan of hot oil. They are called “bugie” or “little lies,” he said, because “they seem big, but they have nothing inside, there’s no truth, no substance.”

Pope Francis’ frequent focus on the evils of living a hypocritical or superficial life has meant employing descriptions such as showy as peacocks, frivolous as an over-primped star and fleeting as soap bubbles. “A soap bubble is beautiful! It has so many colors! But it lasts one second and then what?”

To explain the kind of “terrible anxiety” that results from a life of vanity built on lies and fantasy, the pope said, “It’s like those people who put on too much makeup and then they’re afraid of getting rained on and all the makeup running down their face.”

Pope Francis does not shy away from the gory or gross, calling money — when it becomes an idol — the “devil’s dung” and saying the lives of the corrupt are “varnished putrefaction” because, like whitewashed tombs, they appear beautiful on the outside, but inside they are full of dead bones.

For the pope, who sees Christ as a “true physician of bodies and souls,” there is no shortage of medical metaphors.

Of the most well-known, the pope pines for “the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds.”

Speaking elsewhere about people who have done evil and know it, Pope Francis said, they live “with a constant itch, with hives that don’t leave them in peace.”

The consequence of pride or vanity, he warned on another occasion, “is like an osteoporosis of the soul: The bones seem good from the outside, but on the inside they are all ruined.”

Another medical problem afflicting souls diagnosed by Pope Francis is “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” a condition that renders some people incapable of remembering God’s love and mercy for them and, therefore, unable to show mercy to others.

If people were to get a “spiritual electrocardiogram,” he once asked, would it be flatlined because the heart is hardened, unmoved and emotionless or would it be pulsating with the prompting and prods of the Holy Spirit?

And whether people recognize it or not, God is their true father, he has said. “First of all, he gave us his DNA, that is, he made us his children; he created us in his image, in his image and likeness, like him.”

Meeting with cardinals and the heads of Vatican offices for an annual Christmas greeting, the pope explained the reform of the Roman Curia as more than just a face-lift to rejuvenate or beautify an aging body, but a process of deep, personal conversion.

Sometimes, he said the next Christmas, reform “is like cleaning an Egyptian Sphinx with a toothbrush.” 

In his formal documents, many speeches and unscripted morning homilies the past five years, Pope Francis has given the Church plenty of “food for thought” on many issues of great importance.

On communication:

“Communication has the power to build bridges, to enable encounter and inclusion, and thus to enrich society. How beautiful it is when people select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony.”
— Message for World Communications Day 2016

On creation:

“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”
“Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” May 24, 2015

On economics:

“Let us say ‘no’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”
— World Meeting of Popular Movements, July 9, 2015

On faith:

“Please do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. We dilute fruit drinks — orange, apple or banana juice — but please do not drink a diluted form of faith. Faith is whole and entire, not something that you water down. It is faith in Jesus. It is faith in the son of God made man, who loved me and who died for me.”
— World Youth Day, July 25, 2013

On the family:

“No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. … May we never lose heart because of our limitations or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us.”
— “Amoris Laetitia,” April 8, 2016

On life:

“Human life is sacred and inviolable. Every civil right rests on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, that of life, which is not subordinate to any condition, be it quantitative, economic or, least of all, ideological.”
— Speech to the Italian pro-life movement, April 11, 2014

On mercy:

“Mercy: the bridge that connects God and humanity, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”
— “Misericordiae Vultus,” April 11, 2015

On religious freedom:

“It is incomprehensible and alarming that, still today, discrimination and restrictions of rights continue for the single fact that one belongs to and publicly professes an unwavering faith. It is unacceptable that real persecution is actually sustained for reasons of religious affiliation! Wars as well! This distorts reason, attacks peace and humiliates human dignity.”
 — Speech, June 20, 2014

On Satan:

“The devil exists even in the 21st century and we shouldn’t be naive. … We have to learn from the Gospel how to fight” against him.
— Homily, April 11, 2014

On vocations:

“A vocation is a fruit that ripens in a well-cultivated field of mutual love that becomes mutual service, in the context of an authentic ecclesial life. No vocation is born of itself or lives for itself. A vocation flows from the heart of God and blossoms in the good soil of faithful people, in the experience of fraternal love.”
— World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 2014

On young people in the Church:

“I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses. I want the noise to go out. I want the church to go out onto the streets. I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves.”
— World Youth Day, July 25, 2013 

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