A Look at Pope Francis: lowly, and yet chosen

The episcopal motto of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio is “miserando atque eligendo”.  When I found that this afternoon, around 3 PM, I quickly made an effort to translate it.  The simple Latin phrase of three words is chock-full of meaning and should tell us a lot about Bergoglio – now Pope Francis.

Miserando is related to the verb miserere (to have pity on, show compassion to); it means “to be pitied; pitiable; miserable (i.e. in need of mercy)”.  I think it can be rendered as “lowly” or “humble” in this case.

Eligendo is related to the verb eligere (to vote, elect, choose); it means “to be chosen; elected”.  While the papal conclave might make us lean toward “elected”, I think “chosen” is a more fitting and general translation, although the word “elect” does hold great meaning in Christianity: those chosen by God are the “elect”.

Atque is a conjunction.  It means more than just “and”; it is closer to “and yet” or “and also” or “but still” or “but moreover”.

Very literally, this phrase could be rendered as “to be pitied, and yet to be chosen”.  I think “lowly, and yet chosen” is an apt (albeit slightly free) translation.  It means that Bergoglio identifies himself with the poor – with the lowly, the humble, the pitiable, les misérables – and that, in spite of (or because of!) this poverty, God has chosen him.

The Latin phrase comes from a homily by the Venerable Bede on St. Matthew (Homily 21):

Vidit, inquit, Jesus hominem sedentem in telonio, Matthaeum nomine, et ait illi: “Sequere me.” Vidit autem non tam corporei intuitus, quam internae miserationis aspectibus. … Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi, “Sequere me.” Sequere autem dixit imitare. Sequere dixit non tam incessu pedum, quam executione morum. Qui enim dicit se in Christo manere, debet sicut ille ambulavit, et ipse ambulare.

This excerpt is found in the Liturgy of the Hours, on September 21 (the feast of St. Matthew), for the Office of Readings; here is the English translation:

Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office, and he said to him: “Follow me.” Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men.He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: “Follow me.” This following meant imitating the pattern of his life—not just walking after him. Saint John tells us: “Whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

When these words are taken out of this context and used as a motto on their own, I think it is proper to translate them as I have: “to be pitied, and yet to be chosen”, or more familiarly, “lowly and yet chosen”.

These words are a succinct summary of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), where Mary praises God for having lifted up the lowly.  These words embody the wisdom of God, who chooses “what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).  These words summarize God’s continual love and “preference” for the poor, especially as the Good Shepherd (Ezekiel 34).  In short, these words are a summary of the whole divine economy!

Bergoglio – Pope Francis – recognizes himself as lowly, but does not let his humility cause him to turn away from God’s wondrous choice of him.  Rather, he sees his poverty as a sign of God’s election, although the world might think it otherwise.  This is the way of the Church, the way of each of us: we must recognize ourselves as poor, as lowly, as “miserable”, as sinners in need of mercy, as people of unclean lips.  And yet God reaches out to us as He did to Isaiah (Isaiah 6).  God purifies us by His angel of mercy, by His Son Jesus Christ, touching our unclean lips with a burning coal from the heavenly altar, with an ember aflame with the love of Christ, and so removes our guilt and forgives our sin, and says to us, “Whom shall I send?  Whom shall I choose?”  And each of us, in gratitude for the gift, must have the humility to accept the gift and respond, “Here I am, Lord!  Send me!”  For, in the end, it is not us who choose God; He has chosen us (John 15:16).

7 Replies to “A Look at Pope Francis: lowly, and yet chosen”

  1. Interesting, poetic, thanks. Expanding on what I wrote at “First Things”, I got a good first impression of this Pope just from hearing he titled himself Francis. As I said: As an independent, I am relatively pleased with the choice of Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina. I like that he calls himself “Francis” after the humble and caring monk of yore (kind to animals too as legend has it?), is humble and simple of lifestyle, cares about the poor and justice, and has a degree in chemistry. Looks to me, an improvement over his immediate predecessor and surely many others as well.

    I like this explanation of the title:
    ‘Pope Francis chose his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi because he is a lover of the poor, said Vatican deputy spokesman Thomas Rosica.

    “Cardinal Bergoglio had a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice,” Rosica said.’ (CNN)

    He looks to have some failings too. The issue of his and the Church’s dealings with the fascist Argentine regime has come up, and will again. This link has resurfaced for obvious reasons:
    Anna Williams brought up various explanatory and exculpatory details and insights at her post “More on Pope Francis”. I want to think this man was better than he appeared in the Guardian piece, but in any case: part of being humble is to confess sins, to be sorry if need be, and so on. This too will be a test and a revealer of character.

    1. I suspect we will hear from Francis in his first homily (if not earlier) will explain the inspiration for his chosen name. I would not be surprised if he has multiple Francis’s in mind.

  2. Ich suchte Verständnis für das Motto des neuen Papstes (das er offenbar schon als Bischof hatte) –
    danke, Jeffrey Pinyan, Sie haben mir geholfen.
    – 14.3.13 Heidelberg

    [I was looking for an explanation of the motto of the Pope (which he already had as bishop) – thank you, Jeffrey Pinyan, you have helped me.]

  3. ‘Lowly yet chosen’ was absolutely perfect for the night of his election. So the translation was providential. But grammatically, I don’t think the motto can mean that? Both in context in Bede and out of it, miserando and eligendo must be the gerunds of their respective verbs. So they’re active. miserando = “being merciful” or “pitying”, eligendo = “selecting”.

    You might say in Bede these are gerundives agreeing with illi. But if they were supposed to describe Matthew like that, then in their own clause they would be the objects of vidit. So they wouldn’t be in the dative. They’d be in the accusative, to agree with publicanum. Furthermore: if they were gerundives, what would the motto mean? It would mean “for the one who must be pitied and who must be chosen” (dative) or “by the one who must be pitied and who must be chosen” (ablative). Neither option seems much of a motto.

    So gerunds. In the Bede they’re ablatives of manner: Jesus, pitying and yet choosing, saw Matthew. (The translation in your post takes them as gerunds, rendering the manner of seeing with “through the eyes of”.) In the motto they come off as ablatives of means: by pitying and yet choosing. Thus: Bertoglio was to do the pitying and the choosing. So he wasn’t immediately saying that he was lowly or chosen.

    Now, the context in Matthew complicates this. Jesus, says Bede, said “Follow me” because He pitied and yet chose Matthew. You must be right that Bertoglio meant to identify himself with Matthew. Thus he did think of himself as lowly, yet chosen (even though that’s not what the motto says). But consider: if you follow Somebody who showed you pity and chose you, you must likewise show pity and choose. When Jesus has chosen Matthew, He immediately goes and dines with the tax-collectors and the sinners. It seems that Matthew must follow Him there. So I think the motto primarily refers to Bertoglio/Francis’ vision of how to follow Christ when in office: pity and yet choose the sinners. Go out among them.

    The motto also has some steel in it: it says, I’m a humble man, so I have pity and mercy for my fellow poor sinners — but I shall still wield my office, and choose. The latter is, after all, the perfect verb for the office of cardinal. So one way to read could be: as bishop, I show mercy to sinners, as cardinal, I elect the Pope.

    The phrase is indeed wonderfully rich in meaning. Nobody’s going to listen to a random dude like me about it… perhaps, since they’ve listened to you once, you could add more detail?

    1. Both ‘miserando’ and ‘eligendo’ are future passive participles (in the dative or ablative), that is, gerundives, and as such are passive and denote necessity or obligation. They are often rendered in English as “about to be [verb]ed” “must be [verb]ed”. So “quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi” can mean “because [Jesus] looked at [him] with to-be-pitied-ness and to-be-chosen-ness, he said to him…”

      “Nobody’s going to listen to a random dude like me about it…”

      You’re just as random as me, eh? 🙂

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