By CAROL GLATZ, CNS | Published April 11, 2013
VATICAN CITY (CNS)—After a musically proficient and polyglot Pope Benedict XVI, it came as a surprise to many that Pope Francis doesn’t sing or chant at Mass or speak foreign languages in public.
From his first Mass as pope—his liturgy with the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel March 14—the pope has not chanted or sung during the usual moments of the liturgy, such as before the eucharistic prayer.
His ditching any musical pitch was even more evident during the “Regina Coeli” April 1, when he spoke, rather than intoned, the Marian prayer.
And as bishop of Rome, he has been sticking with Italian in his public speeches and remarks.
Journalists had been asking the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, for an explanation for some time.
The spokesman recently joked that there was a saying about Jesuits, that a Jesuit “‘nec rubricat, nec cantat,’ meaning Jesuits are famed for not being enthusiastic about liturgical song or experts in detailed liturgical rubrics.”
Father Lombardi said Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit, may share some of those traits.
Previously, Father Lombardi dispelled rumors that the 76-year-old pope’s singing capacity or current state of health was impaired by an operation he had when he was 21 in which the upper half of his right lung was removed after cysts caused a severe lung infection.
More recently, Father Lombardi said he believes the pope’s lack of singing is due to “a certain hoarseness” or huskiness in his voice.
He reads aloud very well and effectively, he said, “but it is not the voice of Pope John Paul II, it’s not the resonant voice of an actor.”
It turns out the pope himself gave the explanation a few years ago—hidden away in one line in a book that was recently republished under a new title after his election March 13.
Currently unavailable in English, the book, “Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio” by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti, was originally published in 2010 under the title “El Jesuita” (“The Jesuit”).
In the book, which is a series of interviews with the then-cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future pope is asked what languages he speaks.
In reply, the future pope downplayed his perfect fluency in Italian and said he used to speak French “rather well” and “got by” with German, but said the lack of practice hurt his current proficiency.
“The one language that always caused me big problems was English,” he said, especially its pronunciation, “because I am very tone-deaf.”
He continued that he understands the Italian dialect of his father and maternal grandparents who came from the Piedmont region.
Elsewhere in the book, the future pope said he understands a little dialect from the Genoa region, but that almost all of it is “off-color.”
One of his uncles on his mother’s side was “a shameless old man who taught us obscene folk songs in Genovese dialect. That’s why none of the words of the little Genovese I know is repeatable,” he said.
His hesitancy in speaking anything other than Italian in public has emerged as another feature of Francis’ pontificate.
He did not give Easter greetings in dozens of languages March 31 like his past two predecessors had and he no longer reads out summaries of his general audience talk in anything other than Italian, not even in Spanish, which is his mother tongue.
Father Lombardi said, “It’s pretty clear that he wishes to not discriminate” and show any favoritism by choosing to speak some languages and not others, even his native Spanish.
“Evidently he doesn’t think it’s necessary—either for reasons of preparation or exertion—that he personally needs to read all the summaries in the different languages” during the general audience in which Vatican officials from the Secretariat of State now read the summaries in their native tongues, the spokesman said.