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Language may be key for next pope

John Paul II's abilities set high standard

ROME -- Pope John Paul II was able to communicate in several languages. And if he didn't know one before traveling to a foreign country, a coach prepared him for remarks in such languages as Japanese, Swahili, even Papua New Guinea's native tongue, Melanesian Pidgin.

John Paul, a native Pole who made note of his poor Italian when he was selected for the papacy, became a master of multilingual communication. His language skills set a high standard for his successor.

''Pope John Paul's ability to speak other languages allowed him to make better contacts with world leaders such as Fidel Castro and [Augusto] Pinochet," said Marco Politi, coauthor of ''His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time."

''The ability to speak another language could make the next pope more effective."

The pope's biographers say that in addition to Polish, John Paul could converse in Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin.

Such possible papal candidates as Cardinals Ivan Dias of India, Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, and Francis Arinze of Nigeria speak several languages, including English, French, and Italian.

But not all the cardinals are as gifted with languages, said John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of the 2002 book ''Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election." For example, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan seen by many Vatican watchers as a leading papal candidate, ''is not an especially gifted linguist," Allen said.

Italian is the official language of the Vatican. Since John Paul's death April 2, cardinals from around the world have been attending daily gatherings conducted in Italian. But some cardinals, such as Wilfred Fox Napier of South Africa, according to Allen, require a translator.

Church officials who want to understand Vatican documents, old manuscripts, and Gregorian chants also must speak Latin. But since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s did away with the traditional Latin Mass, some cardinals are no longer fluent in Latin, Allen said.

In an interview before taking a vow of silence before the conclave that will choose the new pope, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan of Mexico emphasized the importance of language skills, not just for the pope, but for anyone who works in Vatican City. ''We always speak Italian here in the Vatican and we read documents in Latin," he said. ''English and Spanish speaking are more important for Catholics in the world."

The Vatican's statistics office reported that there are about 500 million Catholics in Latin America alone. Barragan, the former prefect for the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, speaks German, French, and near-perfect English, in addition to Spanish.

John Paul II's Spanish was weak when he became pope in 1978, but he made learning that language a priority. ''I learned Spanish just by traveling with the pope," said Politi, a journalist for the Italian daily La Repubblica who accompanied the pope to nine countries in Latin America.

The pope's knowledge of Spanish proved useful during his 1985 visit to Peru, Politi said. Politi told of the pontiff's meeting with a peasant who spoke of the injustices of his government.

''We are living like animals," the man cried, according to Politi. ''And we have the rights of beasts."

A monsignor tried to silence the man, but the pope was angry, Politi said. ''Let him speak," the pope said in Spanish.

''He was giving a voice to people who are normally without a voice," Politi said.

At the Gregorian University in Rome, a pontifical college that has 14 popes among its alumni, professors conduct classes in Italian. But the international student body is allowed to do exercises in various languages, including English, French, Portuguese, or German.

Like those students, cardinals and or potential popes should not be pressured to perform in a particular language, said the Rev. Jacob Srampickal, the college's director of social communications. He said the ability to speak many languages should not be a requirement for a pope, as the Vatican has a diplomatic corps around the world to communicate the needs and demands of Catholics.

As language-savvy as John Paul was, he demonstrated that he was willing to try to improve. After he was elected pope Oct. 16, 1978, he made one of his most memorable speeches in broken Italian.

''I speak to you in your -- no, our language," he said humbly from the papal balcony. ''If I make a mistake, correct me."

Italians, initially shocked by the election of the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slav ever, erupted in cheers. By the end of his 26-year papacy, he was able to deliver speeches in St. Peter's Square in Italian, English, French, and German.

''As long as one has a demonstrated capacity to learn languages, a pope would be able to communicate eventually," Allen said. ''As we have seen with the last pope, one can pick them up."

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