Pope Francis And English? He’s ‘Stonatissimo’

by Tony Aiello, CBSNewYork.com

Spanish-speakers will have an advantage when Pope Francis visits the US next week.  He’ll be speaking their language – a lot.

The Holy Father has 18 public addresses on his schedule.  Fourteen will be in Spanish, according to a Vatican spokesman.

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Fr. Federico Lombardi says English remarks have been prepared for Francis for the welcoming at the White House on Sept. 23, his speech to a joint session of Congress the next day, a meeting with United Nations’ staffers in New York on Sept. 25, and brief “thank you” remarks to organizers of the World Meeting of Families on Sept. 27 in Philadelphia.

But with Francis, what the Vatican schedules isn’t always what the Pope delivers.  He’s famous for his last minute ad-libs, which could mean more English on the U.S. trip.  Or – less.

He tossed remarks prepared in English several times earlier this year while visiting the Philippines, substituting off-the-cuff entreaties in his native Spanish.  So who knows how the spirit will move him as he visits Washington, DC, New York City, and Philadelphia?

Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, learned Italian from his immigrant parents and grandparents.  He’s fluent in Latin, in part because while he was studying for the Jesuit priesthood students were expected to converse in Latin during free time, according to papal biographer Austen Ivereigh.

Ivereigh says then-Father Bergoglio spent several weeks in Ireland in 1980 working on his English, but without much success. Ivereigh says Bergoglio also studied German while preparing a thesis on the life of a renowned theologian.

The night Francis was elected in March, 2013, I asked retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick if the new pope spoke English well.

“I have no idea,” McCarrick said.  “We always speak Spanish with each other.”

The pope has admitted he struggles with English, using the Italian word stonatissimo to describe his difficulties.  It translates as “very tone deaf.”

“The one language that always caused me big problems was English, especially its pronunciation, because I am stonatissimo,” he told a biographer in 2010.

The tone deafness extends beyond English.  Unlike his predecessors Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, Francis almost never sings at public celebrations of the Mass.

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