God’s Word: an analysis of Pope Francis’ new vocabulary

Pope Francis has been widely lauded in the media for his focus on serving as an example of Christian humility and engaging the marginalized and poor. His decision to live in the the Vatican guesthouse rather than in the Apostolic Palace, his handling of extreme opulence within the Catholic Church, and his priority for frequent, visible acts of charity all point to the direction Pope Francis wishes to guide the Church.

On November 26 Francis made his aims for the Church more formal through an apostolic exhortation, a document called “Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel). According to the New York Times’ coverage:

Francis’ prescription for the church is inextricably tied up with his analysis of what is wrong with the world. He devotes many pages to denouncing the “dictatorship” of a global economic system and a free market that perpetuates inequality and “devours” what is fragile, including human beings and the environment.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” he wrote, in the folksy language that has already marked his as a memorable papacy.

Francis intends to infuse a new energy and evangelism into the Church. The same NYTimes article quotes the pope:

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.

The philosophy and worldview underpinning the pope’s announcement did not arrive out of the blue. Since the beginning of his papacy both the pope’s actions and his words have suggested a shift in focus as compared to his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI.

In order to glean more clues about Pope Francis’ philosophy and how he will communicate it, I analyzed word frequencies in the first 104 official speeches given by Pope Francis, from March 2013 to November 2013. For comparison, I did the same analysis for the first 102 official speeches of Pope Benedict XVI, given between April 2005 and November 2005. For both popes I used only speeches that had English translations. To visualize the results I created word clouds below, where the sizes of words are proportional to their usage (the differences in color are meaningless and intended to help the reader focus on specific words). Finally, I removed the top five words used by both popes, to better discern differences in word usage. These top five words were: God, Jesus, Lord, Christ, and Church.

Pope Francis: most commonly used words in speeches


Pope Benedict XVI: most commonly used words in speeches


Some differences stick out, for example Francis used the words one, thank, and heart more often than Benedict XVI did. However the vocabularies of the popes strongly overlap. Both popes made heavy usage of words like: people, faith, world, life, must, and love. Because both popes use these words often, subtler differences in their vocabularies are difficult to see.

The visualizations above show the most common words used overall. What I’m more interested in are the words that Pope Francis tends to use much more often than Pope Benedict XVI did, and vice versa. I want to visualize the relative differences in word usage, rather than overall word usage.

To show relative differences, I extended my word frequency analysis. Here’s an example of the calculation:

Word Benedict XVI Frequency Francis Frequency Relative Difference
apostles 0.037% 0.010% -72.698%
saint 0.012% 0.044% 279.073%


The second and third columns show the frequency that a word occurs in each pope’s speeches. Benedict XVI used the word apostles 0.037% of the time, compared to 0.010% for Francis. The last column shows the percentage difference in frequencies. So while Francis’ frequency of usage for the word saint might seem low, at 0.044%, it actually represents a 279% increase compared to Benedict XVI’s usage. Looking at relative differences, we can identify the words that Francis emphasized more, relative to Benedict XVI, and vice versa.

Words appearing in the word clouds below are used at least 50% more often when compared to the other pope.

Words that Francis emphasized much more than Benedict XVI


Words that Benedict XVI emphasized much more than Francis


In these word cloud visualizations the vocabulary differences are more striking. Francis clearly emphasized poverty and poor far more. Interestingly, he also invoked the words cross, courage, and flesh far more than his predecessor did. This suggests he referred in his speeches far more often to the example and sacrifice of Jesus. Importantly, Francis also emphasized women much more than Benedict XVI.

Benedict XVI’s language showed emphasis on more terms relevant to the Catholic Church as an institution: apostolic, apostles, priests, ecclesial, diocese, parish, etc. He also used more words indicating the formal address of a diplomat; the words cordial and cordially stick out, as well as collaboration and country.

All this suggests that from the start of his papacy, Francis has focused on speaking directly to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He does not emphasize the importance of the Church as an institution. With simple language, he emphasizes the need for Catholics to follow the example of Jesus, to serve people who have been marginalized by the world, and especially the many poor who he sees as excluded from the global economy.

Leave a Reply

  1. It would be easier to understand if the words were ordered differently, either by rank or by alphabetically.

  2. The word cloud lets you see all the words in a single view, and engages the intuitive and emotional relevance of the words. A simple list would be accurate, intellectual and logical – which has validity but doesn’t move you or engage your imagination the same way. Vizynary is taking us up to the next level beyond data analysis – towards meaning. Meaning and emotion are what motivates people, not logic. My congratulations to you Vizynary for this work – it is excellent and exciting!

  3. Very nice to see this sort of analysis on the much Pope Francis. How do Francis’ words compare with other popes in history, if a valid comparison would even be valid.

  4. I think this is a classic “either/or” conundrum, and is best served with an “and”. To my view, the word cloud is compelling on its own – it immediately produces a “centering” effect to get many ideas across in a coherent whole (Nice job, Chris!). For those that want to dig deeper, perhaps an ordered listing of some sort would be useful. Each one offers different vantage points and mental on-ramps to the concepts – some folks might start at the details and then back into the cloud overview, others will start with the cloud and drill into the details. They’re both useful and valid ways of looking at things, and part of the challenge in visualization is to engage a diverse audience with different set ways of approaching the story.

  5. Interesting analysis and an effective way of making raw numbers stand out in a meaningful way. A few things come to mind, however, that may temper conclusions one should make from these graphics alone.

    It appears that Pope Benedict XVI used a substantially broader vocabulary than Francis. If this is the case, then, all other things being equal, any given word used by Francis would have a higher relative frequency than that word used by Benedict XVI. Related to this, if one uses more synonyms or related words than the other in talking about a particular idea, he might in fact say more about that given topic, but the associated words will appear lower in their respective frequencies (which also opens up possible questions about translation). I’m not sure how you would visually account for that, but it could be a worthwhile challenge.

    Another observation – In your chart detailing relative difference of usage of the words “apostles” and “saint” you compare -72.698% with 279.073% (not sure how you got this number) which might be misleading to some. If you used a ratio of greatest to least, you would observe that Benedict XVI used “apostles” 3.7 times more often than Francis compared to Francis using “saint” 3.7 times more often than Benedict XVI. These numbers are easier to compare (besides being the same to 2 significant digits).