More than 100 cardinals went to Rome to pick the most important figure in the Roman Catholic Church. But how do these men from all over the world communicate with each other? Do they have a common language? -- Bill Hearty, of Cahokia
Boy, we Americans think choosing a president is tough. Just consider the added difficulty if last year, for example, the Romney people would have spoken one language while the Santorum camp spoke another and Gingrich backers yet a third.
That, in effect, is what you might imagine when you hear that the leading papal candidates hailed from Brazil, Italy, Hungary and the Philippines, among others -- a potential modern Tower of Babel. On Wednesday, the cardinals chose Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio -- who took the name Francis.
How can all of these men in red from the four corners of the world possibly talk with each other to reach a consensus? The only solution, you might assume, is to have a kind of Catholic United Nations, where they all sit around the Sistine Chapel wearing headphones, waiting for a translation. But, given the secrecy of the conclave, that would be logistically impossible.
Besides, it's not needed, says Christopher Ruddy, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the Rev. Christopher Collins, a Jesuit priest and theology instructor at St. Louis University. Thanks to both their religious training and their long years of service to the church, the cardinals have learned to transcend language barriers that might prove an obstacle to you and me.
Here's why little gets lost in the translation, so to speak:
For starters, once the cardinals are locked away in the conclave, all official business is done in one language -- Latin -- and even that is on an extremely limited basis.
"When the cardinals are in the Sistine Chapel, they rarely speak at all, except when they pronounce an oath as they vote and when they are praying," Ruddy said. "That's in Latin. There is no chitchat or politicking, and several cardinals have remarked how intensely quiet and prayerful the voting process is."
Otherwise, the general working language of the Vatican is Italian. Almost every cardinal can understand Italian and most speak it -- for good reason. As bishops, they would have come to Rome every five years for their "ad limina visits" to meet with the pope.
But even before that, a large majority trained at one of the major theology schools in Rome. Collins estimates that 40 percent of the cardinals studied at the Gregorianum, the Jesuit school in Rome, while another sizable bloc trained at the Angelicum, a Dominican pontifical university.
"So there's probably only a few who did not do any studies in Rome," said Collins. Almost anyone with leadership qualities would train in the Eternal City and pick up ample Italian in the process.
Of course, if their Italian is rough, they can fall back on an almost equally universal language: English.
"Maybe even more likely, English is probably a common language for most of them no matter where they're from," Collins said.
Here's another critical point to remember: The more tongues they know, the more likely it may be that they will move up the holy chain of command.
"For someone who is considered to be a potential papal candidate, evidence of fluency in several languages is highly desirable," Ruddy said.
"In 2005, for instance, a number of cardinals remarked on how impressed they were that then-Cardinal Ratzinger knew their names and could speak to them in their first or second language. A pope needs to be able to speak to his people without too many barriers."
Of course, to further facilitate understanding, they can look to the church for a bit of a miracle.
"The Vatican provides instant translation services in various major European languages when the cardinals have their daily General Congregation meetings before the conclave proper begins," Ruddy said. "In their own speeches to these Congregations, the cardinals are free to speak in any of these languages."
Yet, even on their own, sometimes humans can understand each other no matter what.
"Most of what's important goes on in informal conversation," Collins said. "And they probably just naturally gravitate to the different language groups that they're comfortable with. But if they need to cross over between Italian and English, I would think that they probably can get their point across."
Who was the last British king to personally lead troops into battle?
Answer to Wednesday's trivia: If someone calls you a paragon of virtue, the compliment may be worth more than you realize. A "paragon" is a unit of measure to describe a flawless diamond of at least 100 carats in weight.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2465.