SOLMOE, South Korea – Pope Francis usually refuses to speak anything other than Italian or his native Spanish in public, apparently uncomfortable with his abilities even when reading from a prepared text.
But he has gamely ventured into uncharted linguistic territory during his South Korea visit, delivering a handful of speeches in English and even speaking off the cuff Friday in English to thousands of young Asian faithful.
The crowd seemed to appreciate the gesture.
"A beloved friend of mine told me you must never speak to young people with paper," Francis said in his Spanish-accented English as he held up his prepared remarks. "You must speak, address to young people spontaneously, by the heart."
The crowd cheered him on, and he continued. "But I have a great difficulty. I have poor English."
"Nooooo!" the kids cried. "Yes! Yes!" he argued. "If you desire, I can to say other things spontaneously. Are you tired?" he asked.
"Nooooo!" the kids shouted. "May I go on?" he asked. "Yesssss!" they shouted.
But by then, Francis had exhausted his English. "Yes. But I do it in Italian."
Perhaps Francis is just getting more comfortable as his year-plus papacy wears on. Just last week he dusted off his German — used when he was working on a dissertation in Germany in the late 1980s — when he met with 50,000 German-speaking altar servers in St. Peter's Square.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the raucous reception Francis received during the Solmoe meeting with Asian young people showed that he was able to communicate despite language barriers.
"This was a rather important test for me in following the pope," Lombardi said, noting that Francis had little trouble connecting with young people when he visited Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day last year since he was essentially on his home turf. "It demonstrates he is able to communicate with young people spontaneously, everywhere."
Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at twitter.com/nwinfield