Francis hopes women in the Church will be more…”strand-like and cutting”?

There are times when, try as I might, I have no idea what – or whom – Pope Francis is talking about.  I am not alone.

I had a few requests to explain something that Francis said to a group of women, a meeting of the Centro italiano femminile. The English translation I was sent is… puzzling.  [UPDATE: I think the translation came from Fishwrap HERE.  To be fair, John Allen said the translation was rushed.  Hey!  We have all been there!]

I looked up the Italian at L’Osservatore Romano:

“… mi sono rallegrato nel vedere molte donne condividere alcune responsabilità pastorali con i sacerdoti nell’accompagnamento di persone, famiglie e gruppi, come nella riflessione teologica; e ho auspicato che si allarghino gli spazi per una presenza femminile più capillare ed incisiva nella Chiesa”.

The translation I received:

“I’m happy to see many women sharing certain pastoral responsibilities in accompanying persons, families and groups, and in theological reflection,” Francis said, “and I’ve voiced hope that spaces for a feminine presence that’s more capillary and incisive [più capillare ed incisiva] in the Church will be enlarged.”

What the heck does “more capillary and incisive” mean?

In English, it doesn’t mean much of anything.  I think the translator fell into the trap of using “false friends” when rendering this from the strained Italian.

It seems as if Francis wants a presence of women that is more “strand-like and cutting”.  That is consistent with my experience of women religious who made our lives miserable in seminary back in the ’80s.  “Capillary and incisive”.

That, of course, is not what Francis has in mind.

He doesn’t have any time for the LCWR types, after all, whom he has warned about being “zitelle… old maids” (in the sense that they become “sterile”, not “bearing fruit” in their vocations) and evincing female machismo.  There is also no indication that Francis is associating women and hierarchy.

However, capillare can mean “widespread” and incisiva can mean “effective, trenchant”.

That said, the Holy Father went on to speak about the “feminine genius”.  He confirmed that their irreplaceable role in the family must not be neglected, overlooked (trascurato).

So, Francis wants women in general, in whatever role they are playing, to be fruitful.  On this occasion he strongly emphasized their roles in the family.

He is not interested in women being more “strand-like and cutting”.

And former-Father Greg Reynolds of Australia is still excommunicated.

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  1. Will D. says:

    Perhaps the pope is referring to capillary action? That women help diffuse the teachings of the Church.
    I know I wish he would be more precise in his public pronouncements.

  2. JohnnyZoom says:

    Perhaps I am being overly exotic about this, but as a former chemist, much like our holy Father, I can see a nice both/and interpretation capturing a nice Chestertonian tension so common in the Church’s understanding.

    I am thinking of a capillary tube, a device used to delicately and skillfully transfer very small amounts of liquid. The connotation of capillary is one of skilled gentleness, drawing something out with great precision but minimal disruption, something not at all foreign to the Church’s understanding of women. But note he pairs it with being “incisive”, having focus and determination. So we have an image of focus and skill, but with either minimal or stronger intervention. If we assume he also intends that women discern carefully which of these approaches is applicable at any given time, this interpretation is fully thinking with the Church.

    I admit this is exotic. But the interpretation “strand like” is simply silly. And how many popes have been former chemists? In English an alternative image might have been some derivative of “surgical”. But this carries too much “incisive” connotation anyway.

  3. Sandy says:

    Why does he have to make us nervous when he utters these statements?! It’s difficult to know what he means and the worst part is the “media’s” interpretation. Just read the story on Fox and even they, who are supposedly more “conservative”, refer to the ordination of priests. At least Fox says this is not going to change, according to the Pope’s previous documents and conversations!

    My “fallen away” Catholic, evangelical friend wonders what dear Francis is doing, and is worried by some of it!

  4. John6 says:

    Bozo the pope. Enough already with the covering for him. I continue to pray for him but he is out of his depth, and is getting played big time.

    [You are gone. Say goodbye everyone!]

  5. Vecchio di Londra says:

    Oh, who knows: capillary vessels are the smallest blood-vessels, responsible for the blood’s micro-circulation. So they are, so to speak, the widespread local action of blood diffusion: ergo, vital for the body’s effective functioning.
    And ‘incisive’ – journalistic word meaning energetic.
    Promising ‘new spaces and responsibility…’
    He was speaking to an audience of women. He had to say something. Maybe it was deliberately obscure.

    However, just as a Roman General is said to have been accompanied by a slave behind him hissing over his shoulder every so often ‘Memento mori!’, perhaps our present Holy Father should be constantly followed by someone carrying a dictionary, while occasionally muttering ‘That doesn’t mean what you think it means!’ into his ear.

  6. TNCath says:

    These statements by the Holy Father that require Rossetta Stone for translating, parsing, and interpreting are getting really old. I’m beginning to wonder if even HE knows what he is saying.

    Back when Pope Emeritus Benedict resigned, a certain priest in our diocese, clearly no fan of Pope Benedict, offered his take on the occasion:

    I commend Pope Benedict for breaking new ground in resigning and wish him well in
    retirement. On Monday, he made the announcement in Latin, and reportedly some of the
    cardinals in attendance didn’t understand what he was saying! Hopefully, the new Bishop of
    Rome — with the responsibility of the Apostle Peter’s teaching ministry — will proclaim the
    Gospel of Jesus in a language and way that people throughout the world can understand. In
    that way, the Gospel can be truly “good news” calling us to conversion and new life in Christ.

    So far, that doesn’t seem to be working out very well–even NOT in Latin!

  7. gretta says:

    With the mention of “false friends”, it made me wonder if maybe part of his language difficulties is that it is evident the the Pope doesn’t think in Italian. It could be that he had a concept in mind in Argentinian Spanish, and that it got lost in his translation to Italian. Taking it then into a third language, and the ideas is completely gone.

    I’ve also wondered this: I know that my grandmother spoke Italian, but it was the Italian she learned from her mother, who came to the US back in the 1900’s. Thus she never learned all the colloquisms that develop naturally over time – the language she learned was dated. Her Italian would be like saying now that something is “the cat’s pajamas.” There could be something colloquial in either Spanish or Italian the pope was trying to say, and by the time it gets to us we are left asking, “why is the pope talking about pajamas on a cat? That’s silly.” Between having a pope who’s native language is Spanish, and his Italian is probably a product of what his immigrant parents spoke (with likely some particular Italian dialect thrown in for good measure), it is not surprising that things get a bit mangled from the get-go. I figure that if it is really something important for us to know, he’ll try to say it again and we’ll get it later. Until then, I’m just going to chalk it up to him talking about the bees’ knees.

  8. mamajen says:

    However, capillare can mean “widespread” and incisiva can mean “effective, trenchant”

    I think you’ve got your answer.

  9. GAK says:

    This Pope has an odd way of speaking.

    But I didn’t find this odder than anything else, or odder than expressions Italians use sometimes.

    I would have read it to mean permeating throughout the Church and vigorous.

  10. frjim4321 says:

    Hmmm, I can’t figure out what he meant either, but I would tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  11. lana says:

    Some of these comments are very disrespectful.

    What good does it do to be reverent before the Blessed Sacrament if we are disrespectful to Our Lord in people? “Paul, why are you persecuting _Me_?” This is true of any baptized person, much more a priest, and so much more His Vicar. Even when we have a duty to say something publicly, it must be done with due reverence.

    (May God help me practice what I preach.)

  12. robtbrown says:

    NB: There are a some things God doesn’t know.

    He doesn’t know how many orders of sisters there are.

    He doesn’t know how the Franciscans got all their money.

    He doesn’t know what a Dominican is going to say before he speaks.

    He doesn’t know what a Jesuit has said after he speaks.

  13. robtbrown says:

    Maybe the Church should sell Pope Francis decoder rings.

  14. SimonR says:

    Speaking of Francis, what was going on with his homily on the Solemnity of the Conversion of Saint Paul on Saturday?

    When he talks about ecumenical dilogue, he recalls John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II but fails to mention Pope Benedict!!! I find that quite strange!

    “Tonight I think of the work of two great Popes: Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II. In the course of their own lives, both came to realize the urgency of the cause of unity and, once elected Bishops of Rome, they guided the entire Catholic flock decisively on the paths of ecumenism. Pope John blazed new trails which earlier would have been almost unthinkable. Pope John Paul held up ecumenical dialogue as an ordinary and indispensable aspect of the life of each Particular Church. With them, I think too of Pope Paul VI, another great promoter of dialogue; in these very days we are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his historic embrace with the Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople”.

  15. Lori Pieper says:

    I can assure everyone, as someone who knows the language, that incisivo is very common in Italian, and almost never used literally. The closest equivalent in many instances is “trenchant,” but “effective” or “that has an impact” is often better in some contexts. Italians would understand this perfectly. I can’t say a lot about capillare, because I can’t recall running into it before, but “widespread” I think would hit the mark. (Perhaps Francis was thinking of capillaries carrying the blood to the peripheries of the body – seeing that he has such a love for going to the peripheries!). I suspect that as with incisiva, Italians wouldn’t find this odd at all.

    Other things that come across as odd in English: accompagnamento: often this just means “to keep in touch with” rather than “be with at all times.” Also spazi (much overused, I’m afraid) literally means “spaces,” but usually is intended to connotate area or room, often meaning room or opportunity for action.

    The main fault is the poor translation — too literal. There doesn’t seem to be an official translation into English yet, but it would be interesting to see what they come up with. I might use: “I am happy to see many women share some pastoral responsibilities with priests though frequent contact with people, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection; and I have expressed a hope for greater opportunities for woman to exercise a more widespread and effective presence in the Church.”

  16. Robbie says:

    Not too long ago, women were “capillare” or widespread in the Church. They taught generations upon generations of school children. Anyone who was rapped across the knuckles will know of whom I’m speaking. They were called nuns, but then the new Springtime arrived and the widespread disappeared.

  17. Supertradmum says:

    The Pope is not European, he is not Italian He is Argentinia. To look outside his own language for understanding is difficult, as he does use the normal non-colloquial language we are used to hearing from Rome.

    I suggest that he is thinking of the Latina who is head of the family when it comes to religion. The Latina teaches the children the Faith, says the rosary, loves Mary. She is the one who takes the children to Mass, while the Machismo men stand in the vestibule or do not come. I see it here even in the States in Latino communities.

    The women have been the core, perhaps the blood-line of the Faith in these families.

    I think of the strong Spanish Portugese and South American saints: Teresa of Avila, Maria Soledad, Maria Torribia, Beatrice of Silva, Marina, Rose of Lima, Teresa of the Andes, Mariana de Jesus de Paredes, Laura of St. Catherine of Siena and more.

    I am hoping the Holy Father has these life-giving women in mind.

  18. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Perhaps he is simply thinking of both Benedict and himself as those carrying on what they received from those who went before.

  19. GAK says:

    Meanwhile, former-Father Greg Reynolds of Australia is neither widespread nor trenchant seeing as he is, still, scomunicato, baby.

  20. pannw says:

    Vecchio di Londra , that was the first thought that came to my mind. The part about the blood vessels, not the Roman general. That I did not know.

    I admit that half the time I can’t make out what the Holy Father means, and chalk it up to language barriers. I understand his tweets pretty well. 140 characters don’t leave a lot of room to be confusing. ;) And as long as he isn’t saying something that cries of heresy, I’m not going to worry too much about it, and I trust Father Z will let me know if that happens and I miss it in translation. Far too many concrete things to be worrying about these days than an odd metaphor, although maybe it is just odd to me since I’m not an Argentinian scientist. I do sort of wish Pope Francis would be gifted with the gift of tongues like the Apostles, where everyone would hear him in their own language. That would be useful. I’m also reminded unpleasantly of the Tower of Babel, come to think of it. No reflection on the Holy Father, but on all the world. Wasn’t the confusion of languages punishment for thinking we don’t need God?

    But, yes, I took it to be like the capillaries dispersing blood and oxygen to the bodily tissues.

  21. MrTipsNZ says:

    If Pope Francis truly said something like capillary, then it could mean capillary action as JohnyZoom stated, but in terms of biology, capillaries are where all the action takes place: giving of beneficial nourishment and removal of undesirable waste. If that’s what he said and meant, its a VERY loaded statement, and probably WAY above LCWR and CTA understanding.


  22. Geoffrey says:

    “Some of these comments are very disrespectful. What good does it do to be reverent before the Blessed Sacrament if we are disrespectful to Our Lord in people?”


  23. “… strand-like and cutting.”


    dental floss?

  24. Simon R wrote, “When he talks about ecumenical dilogue, he recalls John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II but fails to mention Pope Benedict!!! I find that quite strange!”
    Perhaps because the 3 aforementioned Popes have passed away and Pope Emeritus Benedict is still with us. He may have been looking BACK in Church history.

  25. La mama de Sebastian says:

    I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I think you are correct, Fr. Z, the issue goes back to the fact that our Holy Father, though of Italian descent, is not a native speaker of Italian but of Spanish. I believe he’s using the two Italian words as one could use them in Spanish. Thus, my sense is that by “capillare ed incisiva” he means the connective and insightful role of women in the Church.

  26. terryprest says:

    I do not think there is anything wrong with the Pope`s Italian. It is very good

    The problem is the English translation which has been provided which, as Father says, is sub-standard and can easily give the impression that the Pope does not know what he is talking about

    For “capillare” see the online Trecani (Italian dictionary) at

  27. AV8R61 says:

    Of course the media publish it as “Pope calls for larger role for women in the Church.” Perusing the bulletin of my parish, the only staff positions not held by women are the Priest, Deacon, and Custodian. The Diocesan staff is over 50% women. Not sure how much larger the role of women is desired.

  28. Andkaras says:

    As someone who works with string, rope , yarn ,I would have to add that the value of the finished product depends on the quality of the strand. Many hours of hard work can be lost if a deficient strand breaks ,or becomes knotted or bunchy or requires repair. An artist looks far and wide for the perfect strand .One that is easy to untie when a mistake is made. does not our Holy Father have a devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots ? And he comes from a country rich in the tradition of all things woven and spun. Also think ships rigging .Any sailor can tell you how essential the ropes are to a successful voyage. One anchor rope splits or one slip knot doesn’t slip in time can spell disaster. I think he would like women to be like Our Blessed Mother who untied the knot of Eve , holds every thing together, and gave her strands of DNA to Our Lord.

  29. trespinos says:

    Yes, the fault lay entirely with the translator. Had he had a copy of “Cassell’s Colloquial Italian”, a wonderful, small handbook of idiomatic usage, at his fingertips, he could have found entries for both of the words and been pointed toward “widespread” and “effective”. In both cases, the entries verify that the Italian words are in common use in their non-literal sense.

  30. Fr_Sotelo says:

    In the human body, the eyes go, nerve endings break down, and the kidneys fail when something like diabetes clogs up the capillaries and doesn’t allow blood flow to penetrate the hardest to reach places of the body.

    I took the Pope’s comments to mean that with the help of women and women religious, the Church can penetrate (incisively, and effectively) into many hard to reach places of society and take the vital message of the Church.

  31. Panterina says:

    In my humble opinion, the translation is more literal than marred by false friends. “Capillare”, in this context, means “deep, reaching every nook and cranny”. It does derive its meaning from the capillary vessels. The authoritative Treccani, as referenced by terryprest, corroborates this meaning: “Di attività o azione che tende a penetrare in ogni ambiente o livello sociale”. Widespread” is one meaning, but it goes down vertically and not just horizontally.
    “Incisivo” , as pointed out by Lori Pieper, is one of those often-used words in Italian that can take on a variety of meanings, depending on the context. One should consider its literal meaning, which is “to leave a mark”, as the incisor teeth do.
    So, when the Holy Father is asking for “una presenza femminile più capillare ed incisiva nella Chiesa”, he’s asking for women to play a more visible role, a role that penetrates every aspect of the life of the Church, and which is capable of leaving a deeper mark. I would have to think of a more succinct wording in English, but I’ll leave it at that for now. (Besides, English is not my native language, and I defer to more qualified commenters).
    BTW, this is why I’ve grown to appreciate the English language over my native Italian, when it comes to reading the news: The English journalistic style is much more simple, straightforward, and direct (“what, where, when and who)”. In college, I would read The Economist to understand what was going on in Italian politics, rather than the Italian newspapers. Fr. Reginald Foster also expressed his frustration at the mumbo jumbo that the Italian language allows.

  32. Pingback: PopeWatch: Incisive Capillaries? | The American Catholic

  33. terryprest says:

    In the full version of the Oxford English Dictionary at [subscription required] the English word “capillary” is defined thus:

    “capillary, adjective and noun
    A. adjective
    1. Of, pertaining to, consisting of, or concerned with hair.
    2. Hair-like; resembling a hair in tenuity.
    3. Having a very minute or hair-like internal diameter; as a capillary tube or capillary vessel.
    a. Of, pertaining to, or taking place in, capillary vessels or capillaries. For capillary attraction at attraction n. 5d, repulsion n., see those words.
    b. Capillary water, the portion of soil water which is held by cohesion as a continuous film around particles and in spaces; most of it is available to plants.

    B. noun
    1. Anything resembling a hair or collection of hairs. (Obsolete)
    2. A capillary vessel. Cf. A. 3 esp. One of a number of extremely minute blood vessels, in which the arterial circulation ends, and the venous begins.
    3. Bot.
    a. A name given apparently at first to the Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum capillus Veneris (in ancient Latin Capillus Veneris and herba capillaris), and thence to other ferns or allied plants.
    b. Any stemless or acaulous plant. Obsolete”

    Apart from the very old definition of hair or being like hair, in English the word “capillary” has a technical scientific meaning

    It does not have the breadth or depth of meaning of the Italian word “Capillare” (see Treccani)

    Therefore to translate the Italian “capillare” as “capillary” is completely misleading and for English speakers the result is opaque and lacks clarity

    Lori Pieper and Panterina are correct. By “capillare”,the Pope seeks to convey the idea of parts of the Mystical Body of Christ which are minute, pervasive, invasive but necessary and vital to the very life of the Church.

    Is one single English word available ?

    Does it matter ?

    One single utterance involving “capillare” is neither here nor there. But if you do a Google search with Pope Francis and “capillary”, the word “capillare” has been translated as “capillary” on a number of occasions including discourses by the Pope and official documents of the Vatican Information Service

    Is this a new Italian buzzword among Italian speaking prelates about how they envisage the Mystical Body of Christ ? If so and they wish the English speaking world to know exactly what they and the Pope are talking about, they could put their minds to giving a clear and proper translation

  34. Unwilling says:

    (CNA/EWTN News) “I have been pleased to see many women share some pastoral responsibilities with priests in accompanying people, families, and groups, (just) as in theological reflection; and I hope that more spaces are widened for a feminine presence in the Church that is more widespread and incisive”

    Pastor Bona

  35. Urs says:

    Oh my goodness! Panterina, I would LOVE to have you for my friend to translate Pope Francis’ Italian, or to tell me how good the translation is that has been given! I was shocked when you said that English was not your native language because there is absolutely NO hint of that in your posts! Your English is impeccable! There have been numerous occasions where the translation that is first given is not accurate- even those on the Vatican website itself… I have wondered how the Vatican gets its English translations. Is it one person? Is there any proofreading done or a system to check the accuracy of translations before they go out to the world? I no longer assume that ANY translation of the Pope’s words are actually what the Pope has said. What a great service for the faith you could be for us English speakers, especially those of us who only know one language. I am so impressed that most of the world can speak more than one language. I wish that I knew Italian. It is my heritage and I always thought about learning it but I never got around to it. I want to learn it now just so I can understand the Pope and the Vatican news and speakers.
    Fr. Z, you should get Panterina to be your friend and go to person to double check your translations. Panterina is a native Italian speaker with an utterly fantastic command of the English language, a precious treasure in this present situation! If you are on facebook, Panterina. I would love to be your friend, though I am afraid that I do not have much to offer you in the friendship….except a free place to stay on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,65 miles from New Orleans, if you ever find yourself here…. ;)

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