Should the Pope Learn English (and/or Other Languages)?


The Pope left the city of His Holiness’ papal see to visit us here in the U.S.A., and you would think that gesture alone would be understood as speaking volumes about his love for us, yet in spite of that, I have heard and read countless times that the Pope is not doing enough to reach out to us in our own language. People, some without restraint, have been outspoken about their disappointment, and some have unfortunately expressed themselves to a point that may be deemed as disrespectful. Look at some of the comments left (usually anonymously) on under various posts related to His Holiness’ visit:

[From a priest’s wife]: “His Holiness gave many beautiful and spiritual sermons; would it be possible for them to be translated either on screen or within the video into English? Thank you pray for us.”

[Anonymous]: “Why do we have to translate….we need someone to speak our language.”

[Anonymous]: “I wish he knew English like his predecessor. He may be pope for 20 years. He should consider learning english. Sad how none of this is suggested to him.”

[Anonymous]: “It is a great blessing to receive His Holiness Pope Tawadros II to the United States. It is, however, somewhat disappointing that all sermons, liturgies, and songs have been almost completely in Arabic. Most of my middle and high school Sunday school classes are Egyptians but were either born or raised primarily in the USA. Although they will, of course, follow the Liturgy, very little effort seems to have been made for translation, unless it is after the fact. This is in fact a tour of the Coptic Churches in the United States where thousands of English speaking Coptic youth are feeling the separation from their churches due to the language. Most of the Orthodox parishioners are seeking citizenship within the United States and will see their children and grandchildren born here. How are we to keep them within the church when the leader himself does not arrange to either speak English or provide direct translation services. Compare this with the recent visit by Pope Francis of the Catholic church who has minimal grasp of the English language but understood that his visit to the United States must include translation. Although his English is a bit broken he certainly attempted with great dignity to converse in the language of this great nation in order to include his American followers.”


As the previous comment shows, people often compare the Coptic pope with the Catholic pope, especially since both visited the U.S. so close in time to each other, so here is a little information regarding the Catholic see and languages.

Pope Francis speaks fluent Italian, as well as Spanish and German, and barely any English, although he can read it out loud to some degree. Previous recent popes of the Catholic Church were much better at speaking more languages, but ask yourself what matters more: the language they speak or the way they represent Christ in their actions and life? Pope Francis is hardly criticized for his language deficiencies (compared to previous popes) but is lauded for his character and presence. For more, see this great article: “Pope Francis and English as a Second (or Third) Language”; and here’s another article: “Catholic Linguistics”

For those who may say that Pope Francis spoke more English than Pope Tawadros II during his visit to the U.S., I say this: when Pope Francis spoke English, he was speaking on U.S. national television to an immediate audience of only-English speakers; I guarantee you that if His Holiness Pope Tawadros II were afforded that same opportunity, he would have done the same! But Pope Tawadros was received by mostly Egyptian congregants, most (or many) of whom spoke Arabic; so to say that he needs to speak in the language of the people he came to see, he did! Then you’ll say, but what about the youth! Read on:


I strongly caution against criticizing the Pope when it can be avoided. What happened to Christianity meaning that we bear with one another and make excuses for one another (cf. Rom. 15:1)? Why are we acting like the media where nothing is off limits and we publicly criticize without restraint? Look at what the early Christian bishop, martyr, and friend of the apostles, Ignatius of Antioch, says about honoring your pope, your archbishop, speaking of him as if you are speaking of Christ (note: the following is about those who criticized bishops on account of their youth, but this is still applicable to those who criticize a bishop on account of his language):

Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance [of their bishop], but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all. It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honor of Him who has willed us [so to do], since he that does not [honor him] so deceives not [by such conduct] the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible. And all such conduct has reference not to man, but to God, who knows all secrets. (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, Chapter 4).


Look, the Catholic Church has been global for a lot longer than the Copts, who have only in the last 50 years really expanded globally to a point where we really need to reach out to people in the languages they are becoming accustomed to.

It’s not that feeling this way is wrong, but exposing those feelings in a manner that effectuates change rather than simply lodging criticism is what best suits the situation. Let us not criticize the pope, or the clergy, and especially not the Coptic Church, because YOU are the church. YOU need to take action, YOU need to see how to fix this.

Don’t curse the darkness. Light a candle!

Yes, it would be WONDERFUL if this instant a special committee was created by the Pope to establish a new means of outreach, to provide regular translation and also interpretation services (translation = writing; interpretation = spoken). Maybe the recently instituted Coptic Media Center will be a part of that overall strategy. The Pope has been trying to reach out to the youth and meet them where they are, culturally and linguistically, as we see on feasts the papal messages are provided with translation in several languages. Many of the sermons delivered by the pope were provided on CopticWorld through posts written in English, summarizing what he said. The Coptic Youth Channel regularly translates sermons by the pope (and others) into English. It’s not like this isn’t on anyone’s mind. Instead of complaining, lots of people are just trying to find a solution, whether in a minor way or on a grand scale.

But even if it does not happen as quickly as we would like it, coming from the top down (clergy down to lay people), we can do something from the bottom up (lay people and hopefully up to the clergy). For example, when the pope visited our church, we had someone live-translate from Arabic to English on large projection screens. In California there was a priest who interpreted an entire question and answer youth session (where thousands of youth are said to have been in attendance) into English, although you could tell most of the youth understood Arabic well enough to laugh at all the jokes before they were repeated in English. If you are aware of something that is beautiful and should be translated, do it yourself (if capable) or have someone do it and share it with the youth at your church, and post it online (and maybe send it to and/or CYC, etc.). If someone visits your parish who will give a sermon in only Arabic, prepare for it with an interpreter or live-translate on the screen. (I would say that you should do the same if the sermon is only in English, offering an interpretation for the Arabic speakers among you, because the key is to make things accessible for all and not neglect the few.)

There’s many things we can do to make up for the shortcomings we see, while at the same time waiting for improvements to come down from the top. It reminds me of the way I see deaconship. It needs much improvement, but I don’t care if the whole Coptic world is doing something the wrong way, I’m not waiting for improvement. Instead, I tell those in my parish to do it differently if that is the right way it should happen. I am not able to solve the entire Coptic Church’s deaconship woes from the top down, but maybe enough people from our church will grow up and carry the message to others to make an impact. Maybe even one of the youth grows up and becomes a monk, then a bishop, and then leads the entire Church in revitalizing true deaconship.

In any case, please refrain from criticism, but cover up what you see as shortcomings and instead work on achieving a solution. It’s good that you are aware of a problem; it is best when you take action to fix it instead of simply telling others that it is broken.

12 thoughts on “Should the Pope Learn English (and/or Other Languages)?

  1. Peace and love of Jesus Christ be with you always.

    First, I want to thank you for this insightful article. It is very simple to criticize anyone and everyone. But he is not anyone, he is a father to all of us. Let’s honor him, as we should commanded by God. ““Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” – ‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭6:2-3‬ ‭NKJV‬‬. Also His Holiness is not intentionally seeking to provoke his children, but wishes to grow and train them in the way of God’s love.

    Second, I have struggled for many years regarding the language used during liturgies, sermons, and special occasions. I have received advice from many people, even suggestions to go to a different church. And many times I could rationalize why I should leave the church, but every time I prayed for God’s guidance and wisdom I was surprised. God revealed to me, though I feel separated from the church it is a deception from the evil one. In fact it is God’s will for me to remain strong in the faith, and to trust God with my heart, my mind, and my soul. “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – ‭‭II Corinthians‬ ‭3:5-6‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

    Third, I continue to struggle spiritually but I am continuously praying and seeking guidance from a spiritual father. Many times God speaks to me personally and clearly, that He needs me to be here, in this place, at this time. So though I may not understand what a sermon was about, or parts of a liturgy; I know one thing for sure, that God loves me and I’ll continue to praise Him. “But I will hope continually, And will praise You yet more and more.” – ‭‭Psalms‬ ‭71:14‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

    May the grace of God be with you and everything you do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No it’s not fair to criticize His Holiness for not speaking other languages, just as it is not fair when one who doesn’t speak Arabic is criticized for not speaking Arabic (which happens to me all the time). And it doesn’t make one any more or less Orthodox if one language is spoken versus another. Our church had someone instantly translating over a live YouTube channel as His Holiness was giving his sermon. All we had to do was put our headphones on and tune in. It was a beautiful sermon and I didn’t feel like I missed out. We’re thankful for the blessing and effort of his trip. We couldn’t have asked for more.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree that we should not criticize H.H. regarding English. But I think there’s much to criticize if the place where we put H.H.

    While I agree with your main point that we have to get away from criticizing so quickly and a culture of entitlement, I disagree strongly with the notion that the Coptic Church has become a global Church.

    H.H. is the bishop of Alexandria, and the president of the synod of bishops in the land of Egypt. Until recently, also the president of the bishops of all Africa (which does not mean the continent, but what today we’d call Northern Africa), but with Ethiopia and Eritrea getting their own Synods, today it is really just Egypt. Is it important for the primate of the Church in Egypt to speak English? That’s a question for the Church in Egypt, not us.

    H.H. is not the Primate of the Orthodox Church in North America. There are parishes and even diocese here under the care of the Synod in Egypt. But when Ethiopia was part of the Coptic Synod, it was still the Church in Ethiopia, not the Coptic Church. The Coptic Church isn’t something that came become a global Church, because we’re not Catholic, we’re Orthodox, and Orthodoxy is made up of local Churches in Communion, there is no global structure with a head other than Christ.

    Look at the Antiochian Orthodox in North America. They are under the Antiochian Patriarch. But they have their own primate, the Metropolitan Archbishop of the self-ruling archdiocese of North America, which consists of a number of bishops who make up a North American Synod. Metropolitan Joseph is the archpastor of people here, not the Patriarch in Syria. Though the synod here is subject to the synod in Syria. This is the exact same setup the Ethiopians had with the Copts before they became independent. Same idea with the OCA, except they have been granted independence, like the Ethiopians today.

    You’ll say, but they’ve been here longer. That’s fine. Maybe it will take some time yet before we get there. But that is the solution to the problem of how wrong this all feels, not the Coptic Church becoming a global Church (which is not Orthodox) and getting better media support to publish in all languages.

    And it is a problem. People feel at home in their Churches. There are Churches that are more Arabic cultured, and ones that are more American cultured. But they’ve all evolved into homes for the people in them. Then, all of the sudden, H.H. shows up, and we’re displaced from our Churches. we’re given restrictions on signing up and procedures for who can attended in the limited space, and what’s usually our church is filled with people we don’t know who come for an Arabic event, we’re displaced. This isn’t a fault with H.H. It’s an issue of identity, who we are. If we’re left free to be ourselves, to belong to Orthodoxy first but also to this land, then when a foreign hierarch comes, as our pastor, suddenly we no longer belong.

    There are many bishops here now. Enough to form a Synod of North America. There is no reason Anba Serapion should not be its Metropolitan, our primate rather than H.H., though of course still subject to the Synod in Egypt.

    That H.H. is being asked to do ordinations and consecrations in L.A. where there is a bishop who has been the pastor there for many years, is very strange. H.H. should of course be received with great dignity and respect as the elder brother of the bishop there, and heard, and benefited from. But the fact that congregations are asking him, instead of their own bishop to consecrate their churches and do ordinations, shows that we have a very RC-influenced mindset, thinking that the Pope is our supreme head ,and it’s a bigger blessing for him to do it. In fact, it is irregular for the Pope to ordain in someone else’s diocese. That is not his role. He is not the bishop there, nor the boss of the bishop there, just the president of the Synod of the bishop there. It is very gracious of Anba Serapion to step aside and give up his function to people who take it from where it belongs and give it to H.H., without jealousy. But it isn’t proper. And it shows the mindset people have of the Coptic Church being a global Church, with the Pope as our supreme head. As long as that’s the direction we go, then there will be this feeling of not belonging that people have during these visits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Jonathan, I agree to an extent with you. When I say we are global I mean there are many Copts found across the globe. I couldn’t imagine you disagree with that.

      Is the Pope global? His See is in Egypt, but his responsibility is to everyone. I agree that we need a hierarchical structure that accommodates for the lands outside of Egypt, with bishops in local regions that are able to address the people in their vicinity.

      About your view of the bishop and Abba Serapion, I am at variance with your view to an extent. The pope is the father of fathers. The bishops have chosen him to be their father, meaning they have opted to owe him obedience and regarding him as a first among equals. For the pope to come and a diocese bishop appointed by the office of the pope to show deference to him is absolutely acceptable and honorable. Yes, when a bishop is assigned a diocese they should have a wide sense of autonomy but our hierarchical structure shows deference to the father of fathers as being exactly that, a leader among leaders. I think the way you pose Abba Serapion as being “gracious” is not the way most bishops would see this and not the way the church has been run for a while, nor do I want it to change. The pope is the father of fathers, chosen by the bishops and the people as uniting all of us together under his leadership, and to whom we have decided in advance to give deference in a wide array of matters. Thus what Abba Serapion did was not a moment of grace but rather a predetermined manner of interacting with his chosen father.

      You know how much I appreciate your comments and insight so don’t take me the wrong way! Just offering my two cents.


      • Hi John,

        Please don’t worry about offending me. We can have different opinions and beliefs and still respect one another and be guilty. If we get upset when we disagree with each other, that means we think we’re something… What is it in the grand scheme if you and I disagree? We’re just two guys talking. Sometimes we learn from each other, sometimes we change each other’s opinions, sometimes we just continue to disagree. I certainly hope we can do that in all peace, and if you ever feel that I’m out of line commenting on your blog, please just say so, I want to have good discussion, not cause a disturbance.

        But in this case we do disagree.

        Do I agree that there are Copts all over the globe? How can I answer that without knowing what you mean by “Copt”? Do you mean people of a certain culture, namely descendants of the pharaohs with a Christian (and today, Arabic) culture and heritage? Yes, of course. Do you mean people born in Egypt, members of the Orthodox Church there who have moved into the Diaspora and who are still looked after by the Church there? Yes, of course. Do you mean members of a world-wide Church named the Coptic Church, until the nth generation, in whatever land, who are Copts because they are members of that Church? No, I don’t believe that, or if that is the case, that has nothing to do with the Orthodox Church, which is Catholic.

        I don’t agree that the Church has been like this for a long time .I think we tend to project back what we believe to be the norm and think it’s always been like that. But I don’t believe it has. When in history has the Pope been supreme bishop of other lands? In Ethiopia, St. Athanasius sent St. Frumentius, then he let them be, sending bishops at their request, but not trying to be the bishop of every church there.

        These past few decades is the first time the Pope of Alexandria has claimed to be bishop of churches across the globe, rather then sending bishops to establish the Church there with a large degree of independence. You’ll say that it is different, because then the locals were converted, now they are serving Copts in the diaspora. I saw for a generation, or two, or three, then the people raised there are from the land, not Egypt, and the Pope is trying to maintain authority as a bishop to them, across cultures and oceans. This is unprecedented in history.

        Even within Egypt, I do not agree that it has been the norm for a long time for the bishop of a diocese to step aside and treat the Pope like his is bishop of that diocese when he visits. Grant him great respect and deferment as a senior bishop, yes, but not a bishop to him. When did the practice of kissing the new Pope’s hand after laying hands on his head to ordain him begin? Not in antiquity, in Pope Kyrillos’ time.

        If the Pope is the supreme head, the father of fathers, the bishop of bishops, to all Christians around the world with Coptic ancestry, if the Coptic Church is now a global Church, then it is no longer a local Catholic Church. it is another universal Church beside the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. If the Copts are to remain as embassies of Egypt, under the Pope there, with no desire to grow and mature into a local Church here, then what is the place for people like me with no Egyptian blood, just wanting to be Orthodoxy? My bishop’s advice is to try to be connected to the Root in Egypt, the Motherland, to appreciate the pyramids, and all there is to be proud of. I don’t find the Gospel in that.

        A local bishop is absolutely not appointed by the office of the Pope. that is absolutely Roman Catholic ecclesiology, and not Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy, the people and the presbyters of a local Church seek the will of God, and proclaim their belief of who is chosen by God to be their shepherd, and the other bishops of the land, the synod of the land, examines the candidate, and if they are worthy, lays hands on them. The ordination is not proper unless the people say “axios”, not as saying a line in the book, but really proclaiming that this person known to them is worthy to be their shepherd, participating in the ordination. The bishop then serves the Church in that diocese. They also sit in the synod of the land with their brother bishops. The bishop of the chief city of a land is the primate of the synod. They have no jurisdiction to interfere in another bishop’s diocese (e.g. ordain), but in matters relating to all the Churches together, and in relations with Churches in other lands, they are the chief of the bishops. The canons tell us that the bishops should do nothing without the Metropolitan, but also that the Metropolitan should do nothing without the bishops. It is not a small, honourific thing to be Pope, but it is also not being a bishop to the other bishops. I’m sorry, but any idea that the bishops depend on the office of the Pope, is Catholicism and not Orthodoxy. i don’t care how long it’s been the line of thought, it’s a departure from Orthodoxy. At Nicaea, the bishop of a small city in Egypt stood up and his voice carried equal weight to the Pope of Alexandria. What he said was true (that the marriage bed is undefiled and priests need not be celibate), so the bishops gave assent. This is how Christianity works, unity in love guided by the Holy Spirit. Not rigid hierarchical offices. Yes, the Pope is the chief bishop of the land. Yes the other bishops must defer to him (not give absolute obedience, but defer to him whose role of service it is to guide them to unity) in matters that affect them all, or in dealings with other synods. But the Pope has no authority to interfere in another bishop’s diocese. No bishop does. If that’s changed, then we’ve left Orthodox ecclesiology for Roman Catholic ecclesiology.

        Again, I am expressing what I believe. You believe differently, most likely it just needs to be left at that, and there’s no reason to worry about that 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hey Jonathan. I must say that all you have written is not going on deaf ears but is presenting a new way of thinking about this that I am assessing to what extent I agree. So I don’t disagree but rather am greatly appreciative of your input.

        I do want to say I definitely don’t think a Copt needs to acclimate to the culture of modern or ancient Egypt. Cultural interest is optional, but what is most important is theology, faith, and spirituality. The See of Alexandria and its history is also worth being proud of. But you as a Copt to me are a person who has joined himself to the See of Alexandria and have accepted obedience under its hierarchy, and have declared allegiance to its faith. Don’t let ethnic or Egyptian national pride ever be imposed on you but accept that it is short sighted and with time it will hopefully improve.


      • Always good to discuss with you. I don’t think there’s any way I can appreciate what it means for Egyptians who still feel connected to their home but have to live hear, and I don’t think there’s any way for you to appreciate what it’s like for those of us who have no connection to Egypt and are longing for a place to belong in Orthodoxy where we can be ourselves. But I think that discussing back and forth is important and helps bridge gaps in as much as they can be.

        >>I do want to say I definitely don’t think a Copt needs to acclimate to the culture of modern or ancient Egypt. Cultural interest is optional, but what is most important is theology, faith, and spirituality. The See of Alexandria and its history is also worth being proud of.

        Ah, but this to me is the crux of it. If it has nothing to do with culture, past or present, and it is nothing but fidelity to a rite… Then what sense is there, if we think 10 generations ahead, to be extreme, if we have a city and we have one parish that follows the Coptic rite and is under the Coptic hierarchy, and another Ethiopian, and another Armenian. They are united in Communion, theology, faith, and spirituality, they are all members of the same Church. Yet they operate exactly as if they were separate churches, and in effect carry on with no knowledge of one another. Is this the unity that Christ prayed for for us? Were we really meant to be divided based on nothing more than the lands that ancestors so distant we don’t even remember their names came from?

        Now, I don’t think that will happen. I think that type of situation will resolve organically. But I think there’s a strong sense today that this must be fought, that we must maintain the Coptic Church in North America in perpetuity, always under the Pope of Alexandria, always separate from the other Orthodox. I hope you can see a little from my point of view how that leaves me with no place to belong, and seems entirely contrary to the Gospel, to what we saw in the early Church, where the Church shocked the world because Hebrew and Greek, man and woman, master and salve, all worshipped together as equals, Christ having abolished all human divisions.

        >>The See of Alexandria and its history is also worth being proud of. But you as a Copt to me are a person who has joined himself to the See of Alexandria and have accepted obedience under its hierarchy, and have declared allegiance to its faith. Don’t let ethnic or Egyptian national pride ever be imposed on you but accept that it is short sighted and with time it will hopefully improve.

        Sure it has its history to be proud of. But I as a Canadian who has come to Orthodoxy benefit from teachers and customs from the various traditions. I’ve learned much from a monk who was raised in Orthodoxy by a British monk in the Russian tradition. I see myself as Orthodox, and as Canadian, and my father in confession is Coptic, and I receive sacramental hospitality at a Coptic Church, but as having many teachers from the various traditions.

        If I had become Russian Orthodox, I don’t think anyone would say to me, “But you as a Russian to me are a person who has joined himself to the See of Moscow and have accepted obedience under its hierarchy, and have declared allegiance to its faith.” I could not become Russian, I would still be Canadian, and I cannot become a Copt, which just means an Egyptian. It’s unfortunate that we try to use it as the name of a religion, as if there were a different religion from Orthodoxy. There is no Coptic faith I can declare allegiance to, there is only the Orthodox faith. If I see myself as something different than an Eritrean friend at Church, or feel that he’s stopped being an Eritrean, and has become a Copt, then I think I would have left Orthodoxy and reestablished the divisions Christ demolished.

        Heg. Fr. Silas Spear, quoting Arkimandrite Lazarus Moore (who greatly influenced Abouna Matta El Maskeen), said “Christ came to make us fishers of men, but instead we have made ourselves curators of aquariums, one bowl here for the Copts, one here for the Greeks, another over there for the Russians. What wonder is it that no souls are caught in these lands by fishers from the Orthodox. There are no fishers, only curators in a museum, carrying on the rites of another land, with no desire to establish the Church here, in this land, and transform this land.”

        Again, I don’t think the current situation can be overturned in a day. It is what it is. It will take a long time to achieve canonical regularity here. But to me, we have to confess that our current structure is uncaonical, is a deviation. It’s OK to do wrong stuff as long as we know it’s wrong but it’s the best we can do right now. I becomes a departure from Orthodoxy when we stop thinking it’s wrong.

        Here’s an interesting podcast someone sent me last week:


  4. Thanks, John. Good points. We’ll get there. I think the request to have the recordings with english subtitles to be a fair request. People will just complain that the grammar or spelling of the english subtitles are not 100% correct. We also need an effort to clean up the translations of HH Pope Shenouda’s Books, too. We’ll get there, just a matter of time, and people pitching in to help.

    BTW, if anyone knows of an effort to clean then up, I’d be happy to provide some proof reading of the english, to at least identify the errors and provide suggestions for correction. Or if anybody wants to start a group to do this, let me know. I have a friend that I know is really interested in re-translating into proper English.


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