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.
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