March 08, 2016

What does Pope Francis' motto really mean?

By Charles Mercier *
The Calling of St. Matthew by Carivaggio via Wikicommons.
The Calling of St. Matthew by Carivaggio via Wikicommons.

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…”).

Venerable Bede (~673-735) had knowledge of Classical idiom and an appreciation that exegesis must apply that knowledge (see his “On the schemes and tropes of Sacred Scripture”). In his writing, Bede often pairs words and the pairings sometimes invite interpretation as hendiadys. Claudius takes Britain “without a bloody battle” (“sine ullo proelio ac sanguine,” rather than “without any battle and blood”). The Gospel crowd fed miraculously “hastens eagerly to rise” (“excitari atque assurgere festinant,” rather than “they hasten to stir themselves and rise”).

Bede will use paired ablative gerunds without hendiadys, particularly in history writing and homilies: John the Baptist witnesses “by baptizing and preaching” (“baptizando ac praedicando”); Christ destroys death “by dying and rising” (“moriendo ac resurgendo”); Cuthbert battles spiritually “by praying and fasting” (“orando ac jejunando”).

Yet, these parallels show that “miserando atque eligendo” is by comparison less smooth and conventional a pairing, as the difficulty of translating it in any obvious way has also already amply shown. The very infelicity suggests that we recognize a hendiadys. Accordingly, when Bede wrote “by showing mercy and by choosing,” by way of hendiadys he meant “by mercifully choosing” and that is how Francis’ motto can well be accurately translated. Bede’s sentence from which Francis drew the motto can be accurately translated: “He saw the publican and, because he saw him in an action of mercifully choosing him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (“Vidit publicanum et, quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi: Sequere me.”)

Some of Bede’s pairings of ablative gerunds are almost tautologous: Aidan conveys men to the priesthood “with teaching and instructing” (“erudiendo atque instituendo” (or better, as hendiadys, “with careful instruction”?)). The general public, with whatever excitement they hasten to rise, does not know how to approach perfection “by keeping and fulfilling” its counsels (“servando et implendo” (or better, “by diligently fulfilling”?)). If those parallels suggest that miserando and eligendo can be understood as linked closely in meaning, Bede makes an interesting point: Christ’s feeling mercy and his choosing can hardly be distinguished.

Subtle hendiadys is sometimes only arguable, but literal translation that ignores idiom can be false. Let’s recognize hendiadys in “miserando atque eligendo,” especially as these words have been removed from grammatical context to function independently as a motto, and translate: “by mercifully choosing” or perhaps even “by God’s merciful choice.” The motto then takes us to the center of the concerns of Francis’ papacy and of his Jubilee Year. In Francis’ motto the grammatical coalesces with the spiritual: when the Lord calls Matthew, or the young Bergoglio, or all of us, his mercy is his choice and his choice is his mercy. 

Charles Mercier writes from Connecticut.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.