Ablative Gerundives and the Pope’s Motto

There was some question at work today about the meaning of Pope Francis’ motto “miserando atque eligando” – which is the same he has used on his crest since first becoming a bishop.

Okay. So first I identified these latin verbs as ablative gerundives. Then I got stuck. I know what a gerundive is, but what does it mean when it is in the ablative? At this point I did the sensible thing. I threw away the dictionaries and grammars and when here: “What does the Pope’s motto really say?”

Thanks, Fr. Z. Just goes to prove that it is not necessary to know everything, just to know people who do.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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11 Responses to Ablative Gerundives and the Pope’s Motto

  1. Tony says:

    Having done Latin for a short time and forgetting just about all of it, I wouldn’t know my ablative from my accusative or my gerundive from my intransitive.

    But Vatican Radio (the voice of the Pope and the church in dialogue with the world) says the simple meaning is ‘lowly but chosen’. That’s quite different from ‘By showing compassion and by choosing’, n’est-ce pas (I’m reliably informed that’s French)?

    The first seems to me to adopt a position of (radical?) humility. The second (the ‘Z’ version) not so.

    • jules says:

      At a closer look- (Vatican Radio ) Pope Francis has chosen the motto “Miserando atque eligendo”, meaning lowly but chosen; literally in Latin ‘by having mercy, by choosing him’.

      The motto is one the Pope had already chosen as Bishop. It is taken from the homilies of the Venerable Bede on Saint Matthew’s Gospel relating to his vocation:”Jesus saw the tax collector and by having mercy chose him as an Apostle saying to him : Follow me.”

      This homily, which focuses on divine mercy and is reproduced in the Liturgy of the Hours on the Feast of Saint Matthew, has taken on special significance in the Pope’s life and spiritual journey.

  2. Joshua says:

    As Fr Z explains, while in relation to the Pope himself “lowly and chosen” is an acceptable paraphrase, the exact literal sense “by having mercy, by choosing [him]” is a better explanation, since it explains both what the Pope felt about his spiritual awakening as a 17 year old, all those years ago – that Christ had mercy on and chose him, as once He chose St Matthew – and, further, how the Pope has (one assumes and hopes!) tried in his turn to behave toward others in his care, as religious, as priest, as superior, as bishop and now as Supreme Pontiff: to likewise mercifully choose to help others, to make caring decisions for the benefit of others, etc.

    On a personal note, I am grateful to Fr Z, since my own attempt at translating it was to read it as “deserving mercy and deserving election”, which rather put the cart before the horse, and savoured of Pelagianism.

  3. PM says:

    When I was at school I was taught that the present participle signified (roughly) ‘requiring to be….’

    • Joshua says:

      That’s why I made the mistake I did; I must admit, I don’t think I ever covered the ablative gerundive in my own fairly basic Latin studies…

  4. PM says:

    If I can be allowed an afterthought: notice that the inauguration Mass will indeed be liturgy according to the letter of Vatican II: the Missa De Angelis for choir and congregation.

    • Peregrinus says:

      A somewhat stripped-down liturgy, reportedly. No offertory procession. No distribution of communion to Selected Congregants by the new pope. A second-had pontifical ring (used to belong to Paul VI’s secretary, apparently) which is gold-plated rather than gold. Readings in English and Spanish; gospel in Greek but not Latin. And they were the regular readings for 19 March (St. Joseph the Worker), not the readings that go with a mass for a papal inauguration. Homily given standing, not sitting, and not wearing a mitre.

      Little things, perhaps, but they signal the new pope’s fairly simple liturgical tastes.

      There are reports that the new pope is Not A Fan of the Extraordinary Form. But, then, there are quite a lot of reports circulating about the new pope, and not all of them are well-founded. Time will tell.

      • jules says:

        Those ‘little things’ were hardly missed. But I guess’ little things’ do add up to a ‘big things’.

        I kept looking at his assistant priest. What is his name ?He stood at the right of Pope Francis, He also assisted Benedict xvi. He is a very attentive priest and knows his job to the last detail.

  5. Stephen K says:

    Oh good! A language teaser! Well, I agree with Fr Z in that they are not gerundives but gerunds. They are verbal nouns. You might remember, David, the book and movie “The Getting of Wisdom”, which of course is a gerund too. The ‘showing of mercy /compassion to Matthew’ and ‘the choosing / calling of Matthew’, are the gerunds here.

    Now I’ve just looked up Bede’s homily XXX from which Fr Z tells us the words derive and read them in context. I think we can improve things a little. The gerunds seem to me to be modal, not instrumental: the words “quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi….etc” do not, I suggest, mean “because he saw by having mercy and by choosing, he said to him” etc: – I think “vidit’’ is transitive here with an understood “eum” – and “quia” means less, I suggest, the causal “because” and more the factual “given that”, so a better equivalent English meaning would be rather “having seen (him), (and) feeling compassion (for him) and choosing (him), he said to him ‘Follow me’”.

    It should not surprise that it takes more words and different construction in English to translate the meaning of a neat and efficient Latin phrase: it is in the nature of Latin mottos to be so efficient as to be reduced to far less than is required in our analysed vernacular.

    However it is also important to remember that the meaning of a motto is not necessarily identical to the meaning of the self-same words in their original context. And your question, David, was what was the meaning of the motto, not the meaning of the phrase from which they originally appeared in Bede’s homily.

    Now I would not presume to assert what the Pope himself meant by ‘miserando atque eligendo’ but if I had to translate them I would express the motto very simply thus: “with compassion and commitment”. From what I have seen so far, I think that that would reflect very much key values of Pope Francis.

    • Schütz says:

      Hey, not bad. Thanks, Stephen. And yes, of course, they are gerunds, not gerundives.

      • Tony says:

        Quite a transition here! From ‘By showing compassion and by choosing’ (from someone who knows) to ‘lowly but chosen’ (Vat Radio) to Stephen’s ‘With compassion and commitment’.

        So much for Latin making meaning less ambiguous!


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