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

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

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.

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

“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

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.”


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