In the Book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel is the project of a people united by a single language, leveraging their common understanding in an effort to reach God. As the story would have it, God scattered humanity into tribes of various tongues, “confounding their speech” with a vast diversity of languages in order to keep them from finishing the tower.
It seems fitting, then, that the pope — a spiritual leader tasked with serving as the intermediary between God and humanity — has historically been a bit of a polyglot.
It’s even more fitting that there are people using the aptly named Babbel app in Vatican City, according to our user stats.
Pope Francis is handy with a number of languages, but he isn’t exceptionally well-rounded as a polyglot — at least compared to his two most recent predecessors. The Spanish-speaking native of Argentina is also fluent in Italian, and he can speak Portuguese, French, German, Ukrainian, Piedmontese (a language spoken in northern Italy), and some English. And he has also studied Latin, Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek.
In comparison, Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) was a native German speaker and was fluent in Italian, French, English and Spanish. He also knew Portuguese, and the requisite Latin, Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek.
Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) was the most multilingual of them all, however. The native Polish speaker was fluent in Italian, Spanish, French, English, Portuguese and Latin, with working knowledge of Slovak, Russian, Ukrainian, Japanese, Tagalog and more. He delivered Easter greetings in roughly 60 languages, and he visited 129 different countries — more than any other pope in history. Arguably, John Paul II was the one to move the goalposts of the papacy; hundreds of popes came and went before Mass was ever held in another language, but he was one of the first to recognize the importance of meeting people where they were.
Francis upholds this ethos, but he’s also honest about his abilities. Because Pope Francis has demonstrated a tendency toward transparency, he has been pretty up-front about the relative rustiness of his foreign language abilities, and he often elects to use an interpreter to ensure he gets his message across accurately. Even so, he doesn’t always succeed: in 2014, Francis addressed a crowd in Rio de Janeiro, encouraging young people to “hagan lío.” In Argentinian Spanish, this is roughly translated as “make yourselves heard,” but in other parts of Latin America, it’s just another way of saying “go make trouble.”
Opting to avoid more translation mishaps, Pope Francis has also put an end to a number of papal traditions due to his lack of relative mastery, such as the multilingual Easter greeting, and the official language of the Vatican synod. This gathering of the world’s bishops was traditionally held in Latin, but in 2014, Pope Francis decided that Italian would become the synod’s official language, since it was the lingua franca of the Vatican. This was a pretty big departure from the rule of Pope Benedict, who started a new Vatican department dedicated to the promotion of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church, and who in 2013 announced his resignation in Latin. Only one reporter at the Vatican press room understood his statement.
Pope Francis is well-known for breaking with tradition, and the departure from Latin is a reflection of the fact that the use of the language by the Roman Catholic Church had been on the outs for some time. Francis is largely guided by a desire to reach as many people as possible (and on the simplest of terms), which often means turning things over to a professional translator. Still, Francis is working hard on his language skills, as a modern pope should.
The language that’s arguably given him the most trouble? English. His first duel with the language occurred in 1980, when he traveled to Dublin on a sabbatical at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy. A younger Jorge Mario Bergoglio struggled with English pronunciation, which mattered little during his time as a cleric in Argentina. But in 2013, the matter would return to vex him again as he prepared to address a U.S. crowd for the first time as Pope Francis. So he did what anyone would do in his situation: he crammed.
Coincidentally, the most popular language studied by Babbel users in Vatican City is English. But the city-state is itself a multilingual hub with no official language — a pretty fitting setting for expanding spoken horizons, regardless of one’s holy status.