This essay originally ran in September 2020.
If you want to understand Pope Francis, it helps to know tango, soccer lingo, and colloquial Argentinian Spanish. Making sense of Francis, I propose, also requires an ability to think in hyperlinks. In other words, what he says opens paths to multiple references that further enrich and expand possibilities for interpretation. Francis plays with language and space. This is clear from the fact that his first trip outside of Rome was to Lampedusa, and most recently, in the title of his forthcoming encyclical, Fratelli tutti, to be signed in Assisi at the tomb of St. Francis.
There is no doubt about Jorge Bergoglio’s devotion to his medieval muse and namesake. From the moment his papal name was announced, his pontificate has been marked by a series of homages to the saint. Among the more obvious ones are the Umbrian words of the canticle that gave rise to his reflection on the care of creation and our common home in Laudato si’ (2015). A year ago, on the October 4 feast of the saint, the pope consecrated the Synod of Bishops of the pan-Amazon region to Francis. Soon, a much-anticipated encyclical on human belonging and solidarity will be signed on the day that Franciscans celebrate the Transitus of St. Francis, his passing from life through death to eternal life, and released publicly the following day on his feast.
Controversies abound over the title, an expression translated into English as “all brothers.” Franciscan scholars in particular point toward the Admonitions of St. Francis addressed in Latin to his fellow friars, “omnes fratres.” Admonition number 6, said to be the inspiration of the reflections that follow in the encyclical, begins, in its English translation, “Let us all, brothers, consider the Good Shepherd, who to save His sheep bore the suffering of the Cross.” As a direct quote from a document intended for a community of Franciscan friars in the thirteenth century, the reference is part of an in-house conversation. Considering Pope Francis’s memorable metaphor that calls ministers to be shepherds who need to be living with the scent of their sheep, there is definite resonance with what follows in Admonition Six: “The sheep of the Lord followed Him in tribulation and persecution and shame, in hunger and thirst, in infirmity and temptations and in all other ways.” In other words, shepherds who smell like their sheep must share the vulnerabilities, risks, and dangers of the flock. Not to be forgotten in this context are the words of the pope in an interview with Antonio Spadaro just a few months after his election: “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.”
While some have expressed legitimate concerns about the current title, I am intrigued as to why Fratelli tutti will remain in Italian, across all translations, when the Admonitions were composed in Latin. As I wrote earlier this year in my commentary on Querida Amazonia, Francis uses languages to signal intimacy. In a 2014 video to soccer teams participating in the “Match for Peace,” the pope apologized for delivering his message entirely in Spanish. This language, he explained, was the one of his heart, “es el idioma de mi corazón.” Like the upcoming encyclical, his 2020 post-synodal apostolic exhortation bears an untranslated title, Querida Amazonia, in Spanish. I believe that this is one way he communicates how dear this particular place, its issues, and its people are to his heart.
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