Putting words in Pope Francis’ mouth | Inquirer Opinion

Putting words in Pope Francis’ mouth

/ 02:10 AM January 14, 2016

It was a story that had all the elements of a headline: the unconventional Pope Francis saying something unconventional.

A boy whose dog had just died asked the Pope whether animals go to heaven, and he responded with words that had great doctrinal significance: “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” The remarks caught fire, and very soon there was commentary from all over the world—from activists who took the words as a boon for animal rights to theologians who weighed in on whether animals had souls.

But here’s the rub: Pope Francis never said those words. There was never a boy who asked him that question. It was an urban legend all along, starting with a misquote from an Italian newspaper that started a “journalistic train wreck” that took newspapers worldwide for a ride, with the United Kingdom’s Daily Express even declaring that “all donkeys go to heaven.” Eventually, the New York Times editors would admit the error, revising their original report and appending it with a note that they “should have verified the quotations with the Vatican.”

I was reminded of this incident by a passage attributed to Pope Francis that made the rounds in social media. Titled “Being Happy,” it is shared with an image of the Pope and his name under the passage’s concluding lines: “Never give up on the people you love. Never give up from being happy. Because life is an incredible show.”


A quick Internet search, however, reveals that the text is actually an almost-word-for-word translation of a Portuguese text titled “Palco de vida” (Stages of life), attributed to the renowned poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Only the concluding “Life is an incredible show” was changed from the less-exciting “Life is a no-miss obstacle.”

There’s an additional twist here: Even the attribution to Pessoa has been dismissed by scholars, citing major differences from his style and the absence of any actual manuscript. They conclude that it was likely a fabrication borne of the Internet, as the Brazilian blogger who may have been the source of the last three phrases muses in his blog:

Apparently the phrases took a life of their own and spread throughout the Portuguese-speaking Internet with variations in scoring and attribution of authorship. Then someone decided to take a poem… paste such a small piece at the end and distribute everything as if it were the work of Fernando Pessoa. It did not take long for my three phrases to start being attributed to the Portuguese poet (after all, it is always nice to quote a famous Portuguese  writer instead of an almost unknown Brazilian blogger).

Fast-forward to September 2015. The Facebook page of a “Missionary Community of St Paul the Apostle and Mary, Mother of the Church”—a Kenya-based Catholic group—shared the same passage in English, attributing it, in what appears to be the first such attribution, to Pope Francis. Given Filipinos’ entrenchment in social media and our collective fondness for the Pope, it did not take long for someone to share it, and the rest is history.


A similar, albeit somewhat contrapuntal, episode is the Pope’s supposed reaction to Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s “cursing” him. He was “quoted” as saying:

“I was amazed by the fact that a politician who is aiming at the highest position could be this honest. It was a first encounter for me to see a politician being honest about his concerns for his country other than kissing my hands for the sole purpose of getting the support of the majority of the Catholic population.”


Despite its origins from a satirical website (NEWSPH), which said it was a “fictional interview,” people shared it on Facebook anyway, with the Pope’s image appearing as a meme with what he supposedly said.

* * *

It is doubtless to Pope Francis’ credit that various passages and remarks are ascribed to him. After all, apocryphal sayings are a mark of fame. Jose Rizal, too, received the same distinction when we gifted him with the adage “Ang hindi magmahal sa kanyang salitâ/ Mahigit sa hayop at malansáng isdâ” (One who does not treasure his own language/ is worse than an animal and putrid fish) and the entire poem, “Sa Aking Mga Kabata,” that bears those lines. Historian Ambeth Ocampo points out that Rizal couldn’t have used the word “kalayaan” (liberty) in the poem, which he supposedly wrote at age 8, as he first encountered it when he was already in his 20s. This and other compelling arguments notwithstanding, Rizal continues to be regarded as poem’s author.

Perhaps Herminigildo Cruz, the poet who first published the supposed Rizal poem, wanted to popularize it by ascribing it to the national hero; his own work would never make it as required reading for schoolchildren. Similarly, it is unlikely that the words of a Portuguese poet—or a Brazilian blogger—would go viral. It required the imagined authorship of a revered Pope Francis for the piece to be read, appreciated, and shared.

But all these fake sayings say more about us than of the people to whom we attribute them. They speak of how, in the quest for virality, factualness is sacrificed for immediacy, sometimes with dire consequences for the persons involved. It also speaks of the uncritical acceptance by people of online information. While these sayings may come in the form of innocent, feel-good phrases, we must not fail to see through them the dangers of our social-media age, when all you need is a face and a phrase to put words into someone’s mouth—and be believed by a multitude.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

TAGS: Journalism, Pope Francis, social media, viral

© Copyright 1997-2024 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.