Monday, 29 July 2013

Francis’ “grammar of simplicity”


Yesterday the 28th World Youth Day has come to a close in Rio de Janeiro and there would undoubtedly be a lot to say about it. Instead, I would like to look at a different, yet related, topic today, which is that of Pope Francis’ daily morning sermons, delivered at the Domus Sanctæ Marthæ (DSM). Since his election in March, Francis has been inviting different groups of Vatican staff and other visitors to join him for morning mass at his residence of choice, during which he’d deliver a short, off-the-cuff-style reflection, inspired by the day’s readings. Since these morning masses, and the homilies they contained, have now been suspended for the summer months, one can consider their first season, so to speak, as complete, and reflect on them as a whole. These, by my count 123, homilies form a corpus that is not only important in terms of the themes that it addresses, but also as a body of linguistic content, and it is both of these aspects that I would like to reflect on here.

Before proceeding to the DSM homilies, it is worth hearing the following point made by Francis on Saturday, during a lunch with Brazilian bishops, since it is the key to unlocking their language:
“Another lesson which the Church must constantly recall is that she cannot leave simplicity behind; otherwise she forgets how to speak the language of Mystery. Not only does she herself remain outside the door of the mystery, but she proves incapable of approaching those who look to the Church for something which they themselves cannot provide, namely, God himself. At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people. Without the grammar of simplicity, the Church loses the very conditions which make it possible “to fish” for God in the deep waters of his Mystery.”
With the above in mind, let’s turn to the DSM homilies. According to the Vatican’s spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, the morning homilies are spontaneous instead of delivered from a prepared written text and a “‘complete’ publication, therefore, would necessarily entail a transcription and a reworking of the text at various points, given that the written form is different from the spoken one, which in this case is the original form chosen intentionally by the Holy Father.” The result would be “‘something else’, which isn’t what the Holy Father intends to do [with his daily homily] each morning.” As a result of this primarily spoken and spontaneous form of the morning homilies, only summaries and quotes from them are available, instead of full transcripts. These summaries, furthermore, include notes on who was present at the individual masses, on what the readings of the day were and addenda like “the Holy Father said,” “pope Francis noted,” etc.

As a direct linguistic analysis of the summaries would be skewed by the above additions, I first parsed the 123 summaries and removed from them any text that went beyond a transcript or paraphrasing of Pope Francis. The end result are 27K words, resulting in an average of 220 words per sermon, which corresponds to about half a page of written text. The end result are only snippets of what Francis said and a degree of separation between his full, albeit short, sermons and the record available publicly is inevitable, and indeed in accord with Francis’ own wishes.

Running a textual analysis on the above corpus yields very interesting results, which make plain the simplicity of the language Francis employs:
  1. The total of 27,132 words result from using only 4,118 different ones, which is less than the typical vocabulary of a 6-year-old.

  2. The Gunning fog readability score of the text, which derives from the number of words per sentence and the percentage of complex words used, is 6.6. This is at the very bottom end of the scale and matches that of the Bible (with popular novels coming in at 8-10 and academic texts at 15-20).

  3. The average sentence length here is 13 words, where 17 is typical and 11-13 is considered easy.

  4. Word length too is at the low end of the scale, with an average of 1.49 syllables per word (as compared with typical language having 1.66).

That Francis speaks simply can easily be seen when listening to him and the above just underlines how consistently and persistently he does so during his morning sermons.

Turning to the content of his homilies, the word cloud at the top of this post shows the 50 most frequently used words, where font size is proportional to frequency. As can be seen immediately, “Jesus” is the word that Francis uses by far most often (2.3% of the time), followed by “Lord” (1.5%), where the two top words are in fact synonyms in this context. Comparing this to an analysis of his first sermons after being elected pope, it can be seen that his focus on the person of Jesus is a constant feature of his preaching. If we combine these two words, the second most frequent word becomes “our,” which, to my mind, underlines the sense one gets of Francis being one of us, referring to issues and ideas applicable to an “us” that includes him, rather than a “you” that he is removed from. Worth noting is also that the highest-ranked verb among the 4K words used in these homilies is “love” (7th among all words). A final point to pick up on in terms of word frequency is that of the top 50 words, only two imply obstacles or prohibition by themselves: “cannot” (48th) and “without” (49th). Looking at four word phrases, the most frequent one is “the word of God” (used 41 times in these 123 homilies) and in third place comes “the name of Jesus.” Francis continuously stays close to the person of Jesus, even just from the perspective of the vocabulary he employs, stays close to the congregation he addresses and is overwhelmingly positive.

Since I have already written at length about some of Francis’ DSM homilies in earlier posts, I would here just like to highlight some of the aspects that stood out to me while editing the text of these 123 sermons:
  1. Francis uses the term “pope” quite generously: he refers to the apostle Paul by saying that he “is a Pope, a builder of bridges.” and he also refers to Tawadros II in the same way, and has the following to say about him to the morning mass congregation: “Today there’s a good reason for joy in this house, where we are hosting the Pope of Alexandria, the Patriarch of the See of St Mark. He is a brother who has come to visit the Church of Rome to talk and to make a journey together.”

  2. Similes are a great favorite of Francis’, and he uses them liberally: “The confessional is not a laundromat,” “To solve the problems of life it is necessary to look reality in the face, ready like the goalkeeper of a football team to grab the ball whatever side it comes from,” that God is “not an indefinite God dispersed in the air like a spray”, that Jesus is “like an engineer, like an architect; He tells them what He will do: ‘I am going to prepare a place, in my Father’s house is my dwelling’,” that the Church is like a mother (“How would you feel if someone said: she’s a domestic administrator? ‘No, I am the mother!’ And the Church is Mother.”) and that some Christians are like pickled peppers (“Sometimes these melancholy Christians faces have more in common with pickled peppers than the joy of having a beautiful life”) are just a couple of examples.

  3. Francis draws inspiration from a very broad range of sources, including his grandmother (who’d tell him and other children in the family: ‘Look he is dead, but tomorrow he will be Risen!,’ when visiting the tomb on Good Friday), a man who worked for the diocese of Buenos Aires (“before going to do any of the things he had to do, he would always whisper to himself: ‘Jesus!’”), Pope Paul VI (who “said that you cannot advance the Gospel with sad, hopeless, discouraged Christians”), the martyrs of Nagasaki (“each one helped the other, they struggled mightily and spoke of Jesus as they awaited the moment of their death”), the garment factory collapse in Dhaka (which “killed hundreds of workers who were being exploited and who worked without the proper safety preoccupations. It is a title, which struck me the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh: ‘How to die for 38 euros a month’”), an electrician who prayed for his daughter’s recovery (“Miracles do happen. But we need to pray with our hearts: A courageous prayer, that struggles to achieve a miracle, not prayers of courtesy”) and a priest, who, when he was appointed bishop worried about his unworthiness (to which his confessor told him: “But do not worry. If after the mess Peter made of things, they made him Pope, then you go ahead!”).