Everyone has seen the video. On January 1st an Asian Catholic woman got hold of Pope Francis’ hand and made a desperate plea. The Holy Father did not appreciate his hand being yanked, and began slapping her hand to free himself.
The Catholic world immediately fell into a tussle adjudicating this event. Who was in the wrong—the Holy Father (who has since apologized for his impatience) or the zealous woman who wanted so desperately to communicate with him?
My own take is that both were in the wrong. And that the pope’s security detail was remiss. But this is not what concerns me here. Because for me, an American Catholic living in Asia, something has been glaringly missing from this story from the start. Namely: What was the woman’s plea?
Indeed, why has the Western Catholic press shown itself more or less indifferent to what this woman was saying? If the same thing happened with a Western man speaking unclearly, and the pope ended by slapping him, I believe a key part of the story would be finding out what the man’s message was. There would have been serious attempts from the start to interpret the man’s words. But with this Asian Catholic woman, hardly anyone is interested.
And let’s face it. The question is answerable. The audio recording is not that bad. To go by the woman’s demeanor, tone and body language, it is clear she is distraught. She is making a plea, and knows her behavior is confrontational. With so much Catholic academic expertise spread across the globe, we should be able to interpret her words, no?
I’ve spent some time on this, and may have partly solved the mystery. Some background: I’m a Mandarin speaker, with long experience listening to Chinese speakers’ communication in both English and Chinese. So I recognized right away that the woman is not speaking Chinese. She’s also not speaking Cantonese, the main language of Hong Kong. I’ve also verified with a Japanese linguist that it’s not Japanese, and (more or less) verified that it’s not Korean either.
In the end I concluded, and most others agree, that the woman is speaking heavily accented English. As is typical for many whose native language is Chinese, she’s not very clear on the consonants. Which presents the main challenge. But after listening repeatedly to various versions of the audio, some slowed down, I think I may have the basics.
And so: The woman crosses herself in preparation. Then she sees that the pope is turning away and will not in fact greet her. She seizes his hand and says:
Why destroy their faith? Why destroy the Chinese? [Look for] the Chinese [feelings]. [Talk] to me!
I’ve put the words I’m least confident of in brackets. And yes, it is very hard to follow her. Here is a link courtesy of Fr. John Zuhlsdorf with the audio at various speeds.
Why does this plea make sense? There are two levels. First, the dire situation of the Chinese Church.
Many Chinese Catholics, who have long remained faithful to our popes in defiance of communist authorities, have been thrown into despair over the Vatican’s recent “secret deal” with Beijing. They feel they’ve been thrown under the bus so that the Vatican can make diplomatic headway with Beijing, and they see this new Vatican diplomacy as part of a misguided and un-Catholic attempt to make the Church into something like a semi-religious United Nations. Perhaps the most serious spokesperson for China’s Catholics, Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, fully agrees with this Catholic critique. Deeply hurt by Pope Francis’ policy toward China and by the personal rebuffs he has received, Cardinal Zen has just recently reached out to other cardinals.
Myself, as a China watcher and Catholic, I also have been horrified by the details of the Vatican’s pandering to China’s communists. Consider the seriously under-reported story of Francis’ envoy kowtowing to the human rights atrocity that is China’s organ harvesting business.
So the woman’s plea makes sense in this context of Vatican relations with China’s Catholics.
But what about linguistically? This is the second element that needs explaining.
Of course it is very common for those who haven’t mastered a second language to use phraseology typical of their native language. In this case, the English words spoken by the woman would seem strange to English speakers, but would reflect usages in Chinese. It’s what we call “Chinglish”.
Does my interpretation of her English speech match up with what a Chinese speaker might think/say in Chinese? I believe it does, more or less.
Here, again, is my transcription:
Why destroy their faith? Why destroy the Chinese? Look for the Chinese feelings. Talk to me!
And here is the Chinese that this English might represent:
I will go through the elements, sparing you as much as possible the actual Chinese.
1) “Why destroy their faith?” This seems self-evident. Yes, a betrayal from the pope himself—namely the very authority in whom generations of Chinese Catholics put their faith—becomes a serious reason for despair in the Church itself. Many Chinese Catholics now feel: “The pope is perversely siding with the communist authorities we have resisted for decades in the pope’s name!”
2) And of course “Why destroy the Chinese?” would imply: “Why allow the Chinese Church to be destroyed by communist goons? Why not show as much love for faithful Chinese Catholics as you show for faithful Western, Latin American, European Catholics?”
3) “Look for … feelings.”: There are many expressions in Chinese which use a verbal formula similar to look for as roughly equivalent to search out or go and research. As regards “feelings” in this usage, a Chinese speaker would understand it as equivalent to what people really think. A common verbal formula in Chinese 覺得 means equally feel and think. Finally, in an authoritarian culture like that of China, there is a a lot of distance between What one says in public and What one feels/thinks. So the woman would mean something like: “Go and study Chinese Catholics’ deep thinking/feelings about what you have done!”
(But wait. Did I say “authoritarian”? Under Xi, China is quickly approaching totalitarian.)
3) “Talk to me!” At this point, the pope was already walking away. So it could of course be a call for him to return and engage in the conversation. But one meaning of the literal expression “Talk to me!” in Chinese is something like “Explain yourself!” Which is why in my tentative Chinese I’ve translated her words in that direction. Yes, there’s an extra syllable in her English phrase, which may make some think she is not saying “Talk to me!” but “Talk-a to me!” or “Talking to me!” On this question, note that it’s characteristic of Chinese speakers with rough English to add a vocalic sound to ending consonants. This is because Chinese words never end on hard consonants. (As an example, many Chinese speakers will pronounce my name “Eric” as something closer to “Erica”.)
That’s my best shot at making sense of this desperate woman’s words if indeed she is speaking English. I do think she is, and I do think I’m pretty clear on at least parts of her message. Yes, I may be proven wrong, but so far nobody has identified another language, and no other feasible English transcription has appeared.
As a Catholic living in Taiwan, a free and democratic nation of 23.5 million people repeatedly threatened by Beijing, I am especially troubled over the fate now faced by fellow Catholics in China. And I remain worried about Taiwan’s security and depressed by the prospect that the this pope may ultimately cut diplomatic ties with our flourishing Taiwanese democracy in order to pay respects to the brutal dictators in Beijing.
It is a deeply troubling time for the Church. If you are Catholic, I ask you to pray for China’s Catholics, who are facing some of the worst of it.
Have some deadpan with your coffee. My Idiocy, Ltd. is now in print. Dryest humor in the west.