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ROME – When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis almost ten years ago, the world was immediately captivated by his vibrant personality, his simplicity, his love of the poor, and the fresh, and frankly, unusual papal vocabulary he has often adopted.
From his first buona sera to his occasional mother-in-law jokes, to his use of symbolic imagery and his shoot-from-the-hip quips, some of which have gotten him into trouble, Pope Francis has been a soundbite machine.
While he has become more scripted the longer his papacy has gone on, his frank and easy style of conversation, and his simple language and warm engagement with both members of the public and political leaders, were initially among most appealing aspects of Francis after his election.
He was elected pope March 13, 2013, ushering in a string of ‘firsts’ for the Catholic Church.
Not only had the church experienced the first papal resignation in 600 years, with Benedict XVI’s historic decision to step down from the papacy, but the church also got its first Jesuit pope and its first Latin American pope.
Thanks to the growth of social media platforms over the past decade, Francis is also the first real ‘digital’ pope, in the sense that he has accounts on most major social networks and thus has a higher global visibility than most of his predecessors likely did, meaning he quickly gained a reputation for the colorful soundbites he has often let fly.
Some of his remarks seemed odd or humorous, such as his declaration to believers during a general audience address in May 2013 that Christians should be joyful, rather than having a face like a “pickled pepper.”
Many of his comments have been appreciated, such as his description of God’s love as a “caress” and his focus on forgiveness, and others less so, such as his flap on a handful of occasions that women are “the cherry on top of the cake,” and thus need to be more fully included in the church.
Yet of all the quotes Pope Francis has given the church over the years, some stand out either because of the publicity they gained, or the relevance they hold to the overall tone of his papacy.
Here is a rundown of some of the top papal soundbites since 2013:
Don’t forget to pray for me
By now, it’s become characteristic for Pope Francis ask for prayers at the end of pretty much any public speech or event and is his classic tagline at the end of his weekly Sunday Angelus address, telling faithful gathered “don’t forget to pray for me. Have a good lunch, and goodbye!” before stepping out of view.
It is probably his most frequently repeated request, and, in fact, this was nearly the very first request Francis made as pope after stepping onto St. Peter’s central loggia following his election.
After asking those gathered to pray for Benedict XVI and making an appeal for global brotherhood, he asked faithful to pray for him, saying, “I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favor. Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me – the prayer of the people for their bishop. Let us say this prayer, your prayer for me, in silence.”
Don’t forget the poor
This phrase is technically not from Pope Francis, but is rather that of the late Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who was sitting next to the new pope when the final votes were counted and it was obvious he’d been elected.
On that occasion, as Francis himself has recounted it, as the applause began to echo through the Sistine Chapel, Hummes whispered into his ear, ‘Don’t forget the poor’ – a remark which inspired the new pope to choose the papal name “Francis,” after St. Francis of Assisi, who was known as “the poor man of Assisi” and who was famed for his life of poverty and service to the needy.
While it was Hummes that uttered this phrase to him, Pope Francis has taken it to heart to such an extent, that it has become emblematic of much of his style as pope, often speaking out on behalf of the most marginalized and those on the “existential peripheries” of life, and prioritizing them in his travels.
During his first international trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in July 2013 – an appointment Pope Francis assumed after the resignation of his predecessor’s resignation – the new pope from the new world held a special meeting with Argentine youth, telling them to hacer lío, which is Argentine slang that translates roughly as “make a mess” or “wreak havoc.”
“I want the church to go out to the streets,” he said, lamenting high youth unemployment and warning young people to guard themselves against “all worldliness, opposition to progress, from that which is comfortable, from that which is clericalism, from all that which means being closed up in ourselves.”
Over the years, many critics have argued, with a sense of irony, that Pope Francis throughout much of his papacy has followed his own advice, making a “mess” of things with his ambiguity on matters such as communion for the divorced and remarried or any number of things, while admirers have defended this ‘go out to the streets’ style as a necessary opening bringing the church into the 21st century.
Either way, this bite made waves at the time, and has been emblematic of much of Pope Francis’s own style, at least in the early years of his papacy.
Who am I to judge?
On his return flight from that Rio trip in 2013, Pope Francis raised eyebrows when, in response to a question on homosexual clergy, he said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
For many, it was a shocking statement from the leader of a global institution still largely considered as homophobic by significant portions of society, and where many homosexual individuals have struggled to find welcome and acceptance.
This one line is perhaps the most famous of all Pope Francis’s soundbites over the years, and it has come to represent his broader outreach to the LGBTQ community throughout his 10 years as pope.
Though he has not changed official church teaching or even publicly green-lighted blessings for same-sex couples, he has repeatedly stressed the need to be more welcoming and inclusive toward homosexual Catholics and has repeatedly met with Catholic LGBTQ groups and activists, including his fellow Jesuit, Father James Martin.
The smell of the sheep
Yet another famous papal soundbite that Francis has continually recycled throughout his time in office is for priests to take on “the smell of the sheep,” being pastors close to their people, rather than administrators governing from a stale, cold office.
He first uttered the phrase in a Chrism Mass barely two weeks after his election in March 2013, telling priests in an off-the-cuff remark during his homily that, “This is what I am asking you, be shepherds with the smell of sheep.”
This one soundbite neatly sums up Pope Francis’s entire approach to pastoral care and practice, and it quickly set the tone for his expectations of the clergy under his guidance.
Church as a field hospital
Perhaps one of the most poignant images of the church that Pope Francis has conjured was his description early on of the church as “a field hospital” during an interview with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit-run magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, in August 2013.
During that conversation, which took place in three different meetings, Francis said, “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.”
“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else,” he said.
In this one soundbite, Pope Francis painted out his entire vision for the church’s role, and that of its pastors, in the world, which has underpinned much of his own pastoral decisions, including, among other things, those coming out of the 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family (communion for the divorced and remarried), the Synod on the Amazon (protecting indigenous populations), and even his outreach to the LGBTQ community.
Breeding like ‘rabbits’
Pope Francis raised eyebrows again, and created a significant amount of backlash, when on a return flight from the Philippines in 2015 he told reporters that good Catholics should practice “responsible” parenting, and did not need to breed like “rabbits.”
He had been asked about the church’s stance against artificial birth control, given that during the trip he had met with a group of children who’d been abandoned because their parents could not take care of them.
Francis in his response remained firm against artificial birth control, saying new life was part of the sacrament of marriage, but cautioned that, “Some people think that … in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Parenthood is about being responsible. This is clear.”
To this end, he referred to the case of a woman he’d met who had seven children by Caesarean section and was expecting her eighth, saying the pregnancy was irresponsible because it put the mother’s health and that of her unborn child at risk, while she already had so many who needed her, and noted that population experts had advised three children per family.
This papal remark, while eliciting a few grins, caused enormous backlash amongst the pro-life community, especially the American Catholic prolife movement, who viewed the pope’s comment as critical and offensive. It arguably marked the undeniable beginning of the end of the honeymoon phase for Francis, particularly with conservative American Catholics.
Pretty much from the beginning of his reign until now, the “throwaway culture,” or the “culture of waste,” has been a constant refrain for Pope Francis, who early on defined the term as when, “Human life, the person, are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded.”
The “throwaway culture” is a topic the pope returns to often in his public speeches and homilies, and it was also a major underlining theme of his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si, in which he used the term to condemn not only wasteful consumerism, but naked capital interests and the pursuit of profit at the expense of people, values, and communities when they appear to lack immediate or quantifiable value.
He has used this term in reference to vast categories of people, saying that among the throwaway culture’s many victims are unborn children lost to abortion, which he has also likened to hiring “a hitman” to solve a problem; the elderly, who are often abandoned by family and who were a special priority during COVID lockdowns due to the isolation they experienced; youth who face unemployment and a lack of opportunities; the environment, and the poor.
Incisive feminine presence
Early on in his papacy, Pope Francis scored points with women by saying there was an “urgent” need for what he said was “a more widespread and incisive female presence” in the Church.
Though he had mentioned the phrase before, in a speech to participants in an assembly organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2015, he repeated this desire, saying the church needs women who are “involved in pastoral responsibilities, in the accompaniment of persons, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection.”
Women, he said on that occasion, must no longer feel “as guests, but as full participants in the various areas of social and ecclesial life.”
Francis has often repeated this plea for a more “incisive feminine presence,” and has followed through by appointing several women over the years, both laywomen and religious, to high-ranking positions in curial offices and to Vatican commissions.
While some of his other language insisting that “the church is a mother” and that “the church is a woman” have perhaps fallen a tad flatter, this line sparked hope for Catholic women everywhere that they would finally get to have a say, no longer lingering in the background, but making a real contribution that would be taken seriously and valued.
Please, thank you and I’m sorry
Donning his pastoral hat, Pope Francis offered the world another classic soundbite during a general audience in 2015, giving faithful on that occasion what he said were three key words to any healthy marriage: “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry.”
These words “open up the road to a good family life,” he said, but cautioned that while simple, they are “not so easy to put into practice,” requiring a keen ability for self-reflection and an ability to swallow one’s pride.
This has become one of Pope Francis’s most repeated counsels for marriage and family life, along with his frequent exhortation for couples to always reconcile before going to bed, saying often that “plates can fly,” but couples must never go to bed angry or without making peace.
While there are countless other phrases Pope Francis has used over the years – likening gossip to “terrorism” and condemning “rigidity” among clergy, which some have interpreted as a critique of traditionalist-leaning conservative Catholics, or his insistence on forgiveness – these are among the most memorable, and tone-setting for his papacy.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen