Radio Vatican Unpredictable Pope Challenges Journalists

Each day, Radio Vatican translates the pope's words into 44 languages. The station's staff of 400 are some of the best and brightest from some 60 countries. But Pope Francis is very unpredictable, making a tough job even harder.

By in Rome

Radio Vatican journalist Anne Preckel: "(Pope Francis) makes us work harder than his predecessor did, but he's also funnier."
Marco Di Lauro/ Getty Reportage/ DER SPIEGEL

Radio Vatican journalist Anne Preckel: "(Pope Francis) makes us work harder than his predecessor did, but he's also funnier."

Much has changed since Pope Francis came into office. Wednesday, the day of the pope's weekly general audience, is a case in point. Each time, Francis is taken to St. Peter's Square in the Popemobile at 9:30 a.m., one hour earlier than his predecessor. It is clear that both the pope and the pilgrims enjoy the unofficial portion of the audience the most.

A carabiniere blows Francis a kiss. Three schoolchildren grab his white cap and try it on. The pope accepts Argentine football jerseys, kisses 14 children and approaches a man who has no nose. He places his forehead against the man's forehead and says: "Pray for me."

Less than 500 meters (1,640 feet) away, Anne Preckel of Radio Vatican is sitting in front of a TV screen in a nondescript building, watching the live broadcast. The 34-year-old native of Germany's Westphalia region is responsible for the daily broadcast on this Wednesday. Preckel, who characterizes herself as a critical Catholic, has been in Rome for five years. Her computer rests on a stack of books. The thickest book is called "The Pulpit in East Germany." The sermon begins, with the pope speaking in Italian, and Preckel listens attentively.

Francis is talking about the importance of confession. He says that he too goes to confession, and that he too is a sinner. This is familiar territory for Preckel. Francis says these things often, and there is no cause for alarm -- yet.

A Tough Job Gets Even Tougher

Then he looks up into the crowd, and his voice becomes deeper and stronger. He asks questions and improvises dialogs to engage his audience. For Preckel, these are the dangerous parts, because this pope is very fond of free, spontaneous speech. Every word matters at this point. A sentence taken out of context can have devastating consequences, as was the case in 2006, when then Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in the southern German city of Regensburg, quoted from a text that was interpreted as being critical of Islam. A spontaneous comment can also cause an uproar. In July, after returning from a trip to Brazil, Francis spoke to Preckel's colleagues about gays, finance and women in the church.

Preckel is one of 400 employees from 60 countries working at Radio Vatican, a United Nations of sorts within the papal state. Every day, they translate the pope's words into 44 languages and broadcast them around the globe on 39 different radio programs. It isn't an easy job, especially since this new, unpredictable pope came into office. Put simply, no one knows what Francis will say next.

Preckel is now listening to Francis say: "Don't be ashamed to confess your sins. It's better to blush once than to turn yellow a thousand times." She smiles, for the first time on this morning. It's a typical sentence for Francis, seemingly banal and yet highly authentic.

A Pope of Strong Verbs

"This pope delivers his morning homilies every day, he likes to make jokes and he has a low opinion of manuscripts that were reviewed by the Secretariat of State," says Preckel's boss, Jesuit priest Andrzej Koprowski. "Sometimes it really makes us sweat, because we have to think about things like: Does the joke make sense in Mandarin? Is the translation into Swahili correct? Will they understand him in Senegal?"

Koprowski, the program director of Radio Vatican, is a dignified older man who speaks Italian with a Polish accent. Former Pope John Paul II brought him to Rome in 1983. At the time, he was essentially a translator of radical change: Poland's Solidarity movement, perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now he has his hands full with Francis's revolutions. The pope's down-to-earth style is too superficial for some, says Koprowski. "They miss the baroque, the gravity that they associate with the importance of the papal office. But I don't miss it at all."

Francis is a pope of strong verbs, a Milan newspaper discovered when it analyzed the speeches of his first seven months in office. He often uses the verbs camminare (to walk) and ascolare (to listen), and his speech is peppered with the word avanti (forward). His gaze is directed outward, or fuori, to the fringes of society. The frontrunners among the 106,000 words the pope has used in his speeches are tutto and tutti (everything and everyone). Three words that hardly ever appear in his active vocabulary are punishment, discipline and power.

Funnier than Benedict?

"He makes us work harder than his predecessor did, but he's also funnier," says Preckel. The employees at Radio Vatican don't simply translate the pope's words. They also have to select, categorize and interpret, more so with Francis than with Benedict.

What happens to the pope's words and how they reach the faithful couldn't be more varied. In China, for example, persecuted Christians listen to his speeches in secret, while African programs accompany them with a lot of music. The German, French and Polish programs are considered especially liberal and sophisticated.

On this particular Wednesday, Francis's audience lasts until lunchtime. He is admiring the pictures children have painted of a man in white robes. "Who is this ugly man?" the pope asks, and the children screech: "But it's you!"

Even these words are recorded and archived, as is everything that the pope utters. The collected papal words are stored in a secret passageway between Castel Sant'Angelo and the Vatican. The employees at Radio Vatican joke that if the pope keeps talking at his current rate, they could eventually run out of space there.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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