May 2, 2016

Letter #71: The Choice of a Word

The Choice of a Word

“The consecrated woman is a mother: she must be a mother and not an ‘old maid’! Forgive me if I talk like this…” (“La consacrata è madre, deve essere madre e non zitella, scusatemi, parlo un po’ così...”) –Pope Francis, May 8, 2013, speaking to 800 superiors of women’s orders from around the world

Sometimes a single word can be the source of confusion. And it can cause one to miss the entire meaning of a talk.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

This morning, speaking in the Vatican to 800 women religious, all of them leaders of Catholic orders of nuns, representing hundreds of thousands of sisters from 75 countries around the world, Pope Francis may have chosen such a word.

Already, some in Rome are saying this may be a reason for this still very new, and very genuine, Pope from Argentina to be more careful with regard to the words he chooses when he speaks in public.

In other words, that Francis ought to prepare his talks in advance, and allow his advisors to edit them, rather than speak so often “off the cuff.”

Still, others are saying that his authenticity is so precious to the Church that he should continue to speak in his refreshing, natural, unscripted way, no matter what the cost.

The word the Pope used this morning was “zitella.

It is an Italian word with several meanings, ranging from “single woman” to “spinster,” but the best way to translate it into English would seem to be “old maid.” And soon the official translations were putting the word in quotations, to distance the Pope just a bit from such a colloquial term.

The religious sisters listening to the Pope did not seem disturbed by his use of the word. After his talk, they applauded him. (Here is a video report on the address.)

But within an hour or two, a minor controversy was brewing, stoked in part by the American media.

“The Associated Press reports that in an audience Wednesday, ‘Pope Francis has told nuns from around the world that they must be spiritual mothers and not ‘old maids,’” Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post wrote.

She continued: “I am at a loss to see how this could be other than insulting to women who’ve already given up having families of their own to serve God… Yes, Francis is a communications natural, but in this case, he broke the, um, cardinal rule: Know your audience.”

So Henneberger found Francis’s choice of word “insulting to women.”

Henneberger’s chief concern is that the role of women not be seen by the Church as exclusively “maternal.”

The Pope’s words were “in keeping with earlier remarks by Francis on the role of women,” she continued.

“In a talk soon after he was installed as Pope,” she said, “he noted that women have an important role in passing on the Catholic faith to their children. Of course, that isn’t our only role, right? Right?”

She concluded: “As someone who is trying her darnedest to pass on the faith, can I just say that we could use a hand from the Church in convincing said offspring that the Church is not as constricted as advertised in its view of women? Remarks like these are not particularly helpful.”

But her analysis overlooks some profound, strikingly beautiful words spoken by Francis.

“Rejoice, because it’s beautiful to follow Jesus,” Francis told the nuns. “It’s beautiful to reflect the image of the Mother of God and of our Holy Mother, the Hierarchical Church.”

So, in this case, the choice of a colloquial, popular Italian word to describe a condition of non-marriage and non-maternity (“zitella“) — a word the Pope himself seemed to recognize may have been inappropriate (“forgive me,” he said immediately) — became a source of polemics.

This is unfortunate, because the central idea expressed by the Pope is a beautiful, lofty one: that chastity, far from being a condition of sterility, or of bitterness at lack of offspring, has a profoundly “fruitful,” even “maternal” aspect.

In the the key paragraph spoken by the Pope this morning to express this concept, Francis said:

“Chastity for the Kingdom of Heaven shows how affection has its place in mature freedom and becomes a sign of the future world, to make God’s primacy shine forever. But, please, [make it] a ‘fertile’ chastity, which generates spiritual children in the Church. The consecrated are mothers: they must be mothers and not ‘old maids’!

“Forgive me if I talk like this, but this maternity of consecrated life, this fruitfulness, is important!

“May this joy of spiritual fruitfulness animate your existence. Be mothers, like the images of the Mother Mary and the Mother Church. You cannot understand Mary without her motherhood; you cannot understand the Church without her motherhood, and you are icons of Mary and of the Church.”

The danger Pope Francis faces is that a single word, taken out of context, can be exploited to harm the larger message he is proclaiming with great fervor and eloquence.

But it would perhaps be a still greater danger if this Pope were to succumb to considerable and growing pressure to “pre-digest” every homily or address.

The essential point of the Pope is quite valid: that all Christians should be spiritually fruitful, should generate “offspring” through their joy and faith, should be, therefore, “maternal” (and also “paternal”).

It is a shame that such a teaching could be misinterpreted as “insulting” — and perhaps Henneberger herself might use a different word, like “challenging,” rather than “insulting,” if she were to rewrite her piece upon further reflection.

Choosing the right word is not always easy, but the listener or reader should always pause to consider the entire context.

Pope Francis thus far has chosen all the right words. This incident shows that he will have to choose his words with special care in the weeks and months ahead.

“I pray for you, but I ask you to pray for me, because I am in need of your prayers.  Three ‘Hail Marys’ for me…” —Pope Francis, Saturday, May 4


  1. Liam Ronan says:

    God bless Pope Francis for his ‘off the cuff’ remarks! It makes him ever so endearing. There are always going to be those with the proverbial chip on their shoulder aching for a spat.
    Better ‘old maid’ than ‘old biddie’, the latter leaving no room for affectionate nuance.
    There appears to me that the ‘broods of vipers’ will strike at whatever moves.
    Pray for the Holy Father who is to have his Papacy formally consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima this 13 May by all the bishops of Portugal. (With apologies to Bob Dylan – “You don’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing.”)

  2. Altotting says:

    I agree Liam – I think the Pope did not make a mistake and used exactly the words he meant – warm and expansive but with notes of caution and firmness about fidelity contained within for the women religious. There is a tendency (not on this site) for some media and commenters who are projecting their wishes onto Francis to take the line of thought that he is just a simple South American who is not as sophisticated as the Europeans and Americans and just doesn’t understand us complex, evolved and enlightened Americans . Also implied is if he only got the correct information and it was not filtered by evildoers, he would make decisions that are more to their liking. I loved JPII and especially Benedict XVI and I love Francis as well – the Holy Spirit has sent us a strong, prayerful, warm and holy man. I am an orthodox Catholic who does however get very frustrated by my peers seeming obsession with minutiae and criticizing and quarrelling over the “little picture” and impulse to retreat into a Catholic ghetto (words of B16). I pray Francis will touch hearts within the Church to get out of our own heads and engage the world. Both he and Benedict have so often said that spreading the faith does not depend on force of persuasion, mere words or Pharisee-like attention to the rules, but an encounter with a person, Jesus, and with those whose lives he has already touched. The women religions leadership group can either get with the program, or I predict, after giving them more chances than they are due, he will eventually ask them to choose – are you with the Church or are you all about your own interpretation of things as primary (i.e the line one of them gave about discernment directly from God – very Protestant thinking there) God Bless Pope Francis!

  3. Liam Ronan says:

    Well said Altotting, It was only just a day or two ago that Pope Francis reminded the Catholic faithful that some martyrs “went to martyrdom” as if they were going to a “wedding party”.
    As the Bishop of Rome, dressed in white, reminds us (and as did Benedict XVI) ‘martyrdom’ is something we must face with joyful resignation. The theme of suffering and martyrdom for love of Jesus seems to be more and more present in the commentary of Francis.
    Our Lady of Fatima, Queen of the Holy Rosary, Pray for us.

  4. Altotting says:

    And I wish all would not get lost in the simplicity (albeit lovely and winsome and meaningful in themselves) of Francis’ gestures – I have been watching and listening closely and he is really quite a profound thinker and homilist, in a very direct, colloqiual and somewhat unexpected way. This is not a man whose formation and intellect and spirituality are in any way “lesser” than his predecessors, just different and in some ways unfamiliar to many. I believe JPII and Benedict suffered while carrying out the petrine ministry and so will he, but he has many prayers and he is strong. I read his remarks about the moment of a person’s encounter with Christ – he spoke of “pure grace, pure grace” in a way that touched my heart. If I can find the quote later I’ll post it on here as a reply – it bears reading. Peace.

  5. +JMJ
    This story reminded me of a lesson from the now Venerable Fulton J Sheen, in which he speaks of the three marys who stood at the Cross of Christ. He spoke to the three in their three ways of being a mother. Obviously, Blessed Mary is the Mother of our Lord and , as Bishop Sheen explained, she is also our Mother, as Mother of the Faithful. Mary, wife of Clopas and ‘sister’ of Blessed Mary, is mother of the disciples, James the Less and Jude. Bishop Sheen explained that she represents the women who are mothers by giving birth to children and their role of motherhood is natural. BUT, the Venerable Sheen goes onto explain that Mary Magdalene represents women who never give birth to children. Yet, he explains, they too are called to be mothers. It is, as Bishop Sheen explained, the particular call to all women, in their special grace, to be caring and nurturing… and loving. The beauty of Venerable Sheen is that he, as with our dear Pope Francis, understands that a woman’s greatest value to humanity is that she is by God’s design, the lover. All children need to be loved. All women, if they understand their genetic inheritance, can be loving mothers to children. A Religious who finds herself in any way involved with children can exercise her feminine genius and love that child. I think that is what Pope Francis was saying… ‘Good bye and God love you!’ (FJS)

  6. toadehall says:

    He used the correct word even with its American connotations There are sisters who are life-filled, open and joyful in their obedient service to Christ and His Church. There are others who are dour old maids who cannot seem to enter into the joy of life in the Catholic family, who are more prone to criticism than enthusiasm. I know some of both. It’s easy to figure out who is who–the joyful, life-filled orders have vocations. The others do not. Sadly, the feminists seem to be drawn to the latter, perhaps because they too are, in the end, dour and joyless. And those who do not have life to pass on, whether sisters or feminists, in the end, imply die off…..I thank God for this Pope who challenges and nurtures us at the same time.

  7. Liam Ronan says:

    I wonder if the Holy Father’s unprecedented simultaneous worldwide hour of Eucharistic adoration on Corpus Christi might be a prelude to a simultaneous worldwide consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary?

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