Mar 8, 2016
A few times too often over the past three years I have heard people say, "Pope Francis' motto means something like…" To observe the third anniversary of his election on March 13, in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we can get it straight, though, unfortunately, understanding the motto accurately can dispense neither with knowledge of Latin nor the rebarbative word "hendiadys."
"Miserando atque eligendo" was chosen by Francis as motto for his papal coat of arms, already his episcopal motto. The phrase is drawn from a passage assigned in the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours to the Office of Readings for September 21, feast of St. Matthew, from a homily on Matthew by the Venerable Bede. Francis has identified with Jesus' merciful call to Matthew: young Bergoglio felt the call of God on that day in 1953; maturing Bergoglio used to contemplate Caravaggio's painting "The Call of Matthew" on visits to St. Louis of the French in Rome; Francis in his Jubilee prayer makes that moment exemplary: "Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money…"
Both "miserando" and "eligendo" are gerunds, verbal nouns, in Latin, in the ablative case, which can express circumstance, means, manner. Translating the two words individually, here linked by "atque" ("and"), is not hard: "by feeling/showing mercy" and "by choosing."
But our work of interpretation is not done: we must take account of hendiadys. Hendiadys, which in Greek means "one through two," is a literary figure in Greek and Latin in which one idea is broken into two parts, to freshen it and focus attention concretely on two of its individual aspects. Vergil says "pateris et auro" ("from libation bowls and gold") and means "from golden libation bowls." Cicero says "iudiciis periculisque" ("in trials and dangers") and means "the legal hazards of standing trial." AE Housman in a parody of Greek tragic diction says "with heels and speed" and means "with swift steps." Hendiadys is not a figure appealing to modern English speakers, though common in Shakespeare and Milton ("with joy and tidings fraught…").