Is Pope Francis starting to make a difference?

The Catholic Church always takes a clear position on a variety of issues, but differences across Catholic clergy’ positions start when some clergy members decide to emphasize some issues while de-emphasizing others. In other words, we do not see some clergy members favoring abortion, or completely ignoring the poor. Rather, all the Catholic clergy fall in line with the doctrine of the Church and, therefore are opposed to abortion and favor the poor. Differences, however, emerge in terms of the degree to which clergy choose to focus on one issue over another.

As stated by Pope Francis “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time” (full interview available at:

In order to see whether Pope Francis is starting to make a difference in the Catholic Church’s discourse, and taking advantage of the liturgical time we live in the Catholic Church, the lent, I selected nine Ash Wednesday homilies preached by the last three popes, four for Blessed John Paul II, four for Pope Benedict XVI, and one by Pope Francis. I selected 1979, 2000, 2003 and 2004, the initial, the jubilee, and the last two years of John Paul II; the last four years of Benedict XVI (2010-2013; and the only one Ash Wednesday homily preached by Francis (2014).

I selected the same day for the three popes, the Ash Wednesday, in order to make some controlled comparisons regarding what words, rather than what topics popes decide to emphasize when preaching about the starting day of the lent.

In this initial effort I hope to detect, if any, some variations in the words that popes choose to emphasize through a data visualization highly popular technique, tag cloud or word cloud. In this technique, the frequency of words used is colored by size. The bigger the size of the word in the plot, the more frequent popes use that word. The smaller the size, the frequency is lower.

Overall, all the last three popes primarily decided to emphasize the word “God”. And then “hearth” and “Christ”, as anyone could expect. Differences emerge however when additional words are analyzed. The following figures are restricted to the most 50 used words or less. The nine homilies are showed in figure 1, in which “God” is the most used word, and then “hearth”, “Christ”, “lent”, “ash”, and “death”. The next most used words are pictured in blue, and the following group is pictured in brown.



Figure 1: The last three Popes, 9 selected Ash Wednesday Homilies (1979-2014)


Separated analyses across the three last popes reveal some differences about what words each pope decided to emphasize. Blessed John Paul II used “God” as any other pope, followed by “death”, and then “Christ”, “hearth”, “ash”, and “spirit”, a word which seems to belong to John Paul II only, when analyzing this limited number of Ash Wednesday homilies, as shown by figure 2. Interestingly, the word “prayer” belongs to the sixth group, pictured in blue.




Figure 2. Blessed John Paul II, 4 selected Ash Wednesday Homilies (1979, 2000, 2003 and 2004)

Pope Benedict decided to primarily emphasize “God”, as any other pope, and then “heart”, “lent”, and “sin”, a word which seems to be very unique in Benedict’s Ash Wednesday homilies, as shown by figure 3. It is noteworthy to remark that “death” was still used by Benedict XVI, but the frequency was lower when compared to John Paul II. Another interesting change is the word “prayer”, from the sixth group during John Paul II to the third group during Benedict’s Ash Wednesday homilies.




Figure 3. Benedict XVI, 4 selected Ash Wednesday Homilies (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013)

Finally, Pope Francis in his first Ash Wednesday homily, preached this past March 5th of 2014, decided to emphasize “God” as his predecessors did. He also included a frequent word: “prayer” and the traditional “hearth” and “lent”. New additions were “give”, and “need” in one group, and “one” and “other” in the following one, as shown by figure 4. Interestingly, “prayer” went from the sixth group of words emphasized by John Paul II to the third group used by Benedict XVI to the second one in the first Ash Wednesday homily preached by Francis.



Figure 4. Francis, his one and only Ash Wednesday Homily (2014)

Although using a very limited set of homilies does not allow us to fully test whether the new pope is starting a potential change in the discourse of the Catholic Church, preliminary results from data visualization suggest that “spirit” and “sin” are no longer the landmark words of this new papacy. Very much to the contrary, Francis emphasizes “prayer”, “give”, and “need”. Interestingly, the use of the word “journey” was less frequent during John Paul II homilies, more frequent during the term of Pope Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis also seems to use that word, as revealed by his first Ash Wednesday homily. A similar pattern was found when analyzing the word “prayer”.

In sum, these differences, from “spirit” and “sin” to “prayer”, “give”, and “need” may reveal a gradual change in the Catholic Church discourse. Although these preliminary changes in the new Pope’s discourse are not necessarily connected to the official teachings, there are reasons to believe that some differences in the papal discourse are starting to emerge. We have to spend more time analyzing the whereabouts of Francis papacy in order to see whether these preliminary changes start to make more differences in the Catholic Church. For now, data and lines of commands in R are provided.


Data come from the Vatican website.

Blessed John Paul II:


Benedict XVI:



### a very simple wordcloud worked example in R here:


pope <- Corpus (DirSource(“cloud/”))

pope <- tm_map(pope, stripWhitespace)
pope <- tm_map(pope, removePunctuation)
pope <- tm_map(pope, tolower)
pope <- tm_map(pope, removeWords, stopwords(“english”))
pope <- tm_map(pope, stemDocument)

pope<- tm_map(pope, removeWords, “also”)
pope<- tm_map(pope, removeWords, “may”)
pope<- tm_map(pope, removeWords, “curs”)

wordcloud(pope, scale=c(5,0.5), max.words=50, random.order=FALSE, rot.per=0.35, use.r.layout=FALSE, colors=brewer.pal(8, “Dark2”))

About Alejandro Diaz Dominguez

Professor, School of Government at Tecnológico de Monterrey. PhD in Political Science at Vanderbilt University. [religion and politics, R, surveys, electoral management bodies] Twitter: @alejdiazd View all posts by Alejandro Diaz Dominguez

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