There seem to be two schools of thought about the meaning of the motto on Pope Francis's coat of arms:

miserando atque eligendo

These words are taken from the 21st homily of the Venerable Bede, describing Jesus's first meeting with Matthew:

 Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi, ‘Sequere me’.

One school of thought, represented by Fr. Z, says that the phrase has two ablative gerunds and describes Jesus's way of seeing: "by showing compassion and by choosing." Fr. Z would translate the sentence "Jesus, therefore, saw the publican, and because he saw by having mercy and by choosing, He said to him, ‘Follow me.'"

Ron Conte, representing the other school of thought, says that's a literal, word-by-word translation that misses the meaning, as such an approach to translation often does. Conte would translate the motto "pitiable yet chosen", and the whole sentence “Then Jesus saw the publican, and because he saw [him to be] pitiable and yet elect, he said to him: Follow me.” Most commonly, the motto is translated "lowly but chosen."

My problem with Fr. Z's interpretation is that it doesn't make sense. What does it mean to "see by choosing"? My problem with Ron Conte's interpretation is that I don't understand the grammar.

Miserando and eligendo appear to be ablatives describing vidit. Or perhaps there are some elided words and the sentence should be understood like this:

Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia [eum] miserando atque eligendo [esse] vidit, ait illi, ‘Sequere me’.

But I still don't understand that. What does it mean to use an ablative gerund as a predicate like that? Why not a gerundive, like eum miserandum atque eligendum esse vidit? Does the fact that miseror can also be understood as a deponent verb play a role here? Might these actually be dative gerunds?


7 Answers 7


Fortunately, there is a straightforward answer. In medieval Latin, the ablative gerund often communicates manner. The result is not so different from a participle or even an adverb or adverbial phrase. For example, you will read that someone is doing something "flendo." This doesn't mean "by means of weeping," it just means "while weeping" or "in tears."

So, the clause in question would mean "Since he looked with pity and election" or "with a pitying, electing gaze."

From A&G:

Ablative of the Gerund and Gerundive

  1. The ablative of the gerund and gerundive is used (1) to express manner, means, cause, etc.;


5 In this [manner] use the ablative of the gerund is, in later writers nearly, and in mediæval writers entirely, equivalent to a present participle.

Cum ūnā diērum FLENDŌ sēdisset, quīdam mīles generōsus iūxtā eam EQUITANDŌ vēnit. (Gesta Romanorum, 66 [58]) As one day she sat weeping, a certain knight came riding by (compare § 507, fourth example).

Hence come the Italian and Spanish forms of the present participle (as mandando, esperando), the true participial form becoming an adjective in those languages.

  • Very interesting! It really solves the puzzle in an elegant fashion. It would be nice if you could provide a source for that feature of medieval grammar
    – Rafael
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 10:20
  • A quirk of medieval grammar—this might be the clue that finally sorts this out! Could the meaning be like English "and because he was in a pitying and choosing state of mind when he saw Matthew"? Can you point me to another example of Medieval Latin using the ablative in this way?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 10:24
  • Source added. I've seen it a lot with different verbs, since I read mostly late medieval and Renaissance Latin. Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 13:53
  • How about this as a literal English translation of Bede's sentence (clear though perhaps a little clumsy): "And so Jesus saw a publican, and because when he saw him he pitied him, but he was also choosing [apostles], he said to him, 'Follow me'"? And then this for Pope Francis's motto: "pitying but also choosing [people to call to some higher mission than being pitiable]"?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 22:46

I read through Ron Conte's blog post and find it sloppy and unscholarly. He makes the (correct) point that Fr. Z's proposed translation sounds literal and stinted and, almost in the same words, asks us to use his translation even though it makes no grammatical sense, because he has translated many things. It does not help that his proposed translation is just as awkward.

I will argue for the ablative gerund. I think there is one compelling justification for this in the oratorical structure of Bede's sentence. I will use line breaks to emphasize this:

Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum,
et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit,
ait illi, ‘Sequere me’.

The key second part answers the question: how did Jesus see the publican? The repetition of vidit with two ablatives answers this question. If Bede wanted to revisit the first part by describing "what kind of man" the publican was, it would not make sense to repeat vidit. If the intention is to modify publicanum, there is no amount of verbal prevarication and translation credentials that can justify the use of the ablative.

I should also add that any possible interpretation of these words as a dative gerundive and modifying illi ignores the rhetorical balance of the sentence, since the quia clause forms a distinct entity.

The ablative gerund with a verb is a frequent construction. Here is one easy example:

simul illorum calamitatem commemorando augere nolo quibus liberos coniugesque suas integras ab istius petulantia conservare non licitum est.(Cicero, In Verrem

So, what are these two gerunds saying? Let's look at two similar usages of the ablative gerund in classical literature:

  1. Miserando

tu quidem, Cn. Corneli, macte uirtute esto; sed caue, frustra miserando exiguum tempus e manibus hostium euadendi absumas. (Livius, Ab Urbe Condita

...be wary lest you waste the small time you have to escape from the hands of the enemy with pointless sorrowing.

  1. Eligendo

Nam adulans populus Romanus Octaviano tria obtulit nomina, utrum vellet Quirinus, an Caesar, an Augustus vocari. ille ne unum eligendo partem laederet quae aliud offerre cupiebat, diverso tempore omnibus usus est... (Maurus Servius Honoratus, In Vergilii Aeneidos Libros 1.292.26)

...lest he, by choosing one [name], should offend the part that wished to offer the other...

Enlightened by these examples, we can come up with a literal translation:

Jesus saw the publican,
and, because he saw him by means of his pitying and choosing,
he said to him, "Follow me."

A freer translation that still captures the ablative of means and assumes a kind of hendiadys:

Jesus saw the publican, but because he saw him in light of his merciful plan, he said to him, "Follow me."

I admit that the present participle (modifying "Jesus") seems more natural to me here, but Bede's point appears to be that "Jesus only saw him because of his great mercy and plans for that person"--as if he did not see him with his physical eyes.


(I am posting my previous comment here in part because I hope this will help, in some small way, to get this site past the beta stage. However, I do not think my comments deserve a bounty.)

Fr. Z seems correct to me: the ablative gerund, which can come close to being a mere present participle, usually expresses an ablative of means or cause (or is used after comparatives, or after certain prepositions). These gerunds are grammatically connected to the verb.

And I agree with brianpck: there does not seem to be any good reason to treat them as anything but ablative gerunds (of means). I don't know Ron Conte, but it strikes me that his 'translation' requires an understanding of Bede's skills as a 'Latinist' that is manifestly untrue and unfair.

Bede seems to suggest that the manner in which Jesus sees is one where he (naturally/inherently) exercises his mercy and election. It connects the idea of mercy and election more strongly to the verb than if Jesus were simply merciful and choosy (et quia Iesus, miserans et eligens, aid illi, 'Sequere me'). Thus, similar to brianpck, I take Bede to mean that Jesus saw him through the lens -- 'by means of' -- of exercising mercy and election. The rest of us simply don't have that power. (I've often said my eyesight is not what I wished it was....)


FWIW, Pope Francis spoke about this recently (in an article translated into English by five independent experts):

"I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.”

The motto is taken from the Homilies of Bede the Venerable, who writes in his comments on the Gospel story of the calling of Matthew: “Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The pope adds: “I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [“mercy-ing”].

  • If the question is about the coat of arms, the pope's view is the correct one. If it's about Venerable Bede's intended meaning or Latin grammar, it's debatable. In any case, I'm happy that we have a pope who puts genuine thought into Latin.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 20:33
  • 1
    To clarify: do you know if the brackets represent the pope's own translation? His gloss in the second paragraph implies the ablative gerund (which, as I mentioned, is really the only viable possibility). @JoonasIlmavirta Reminder that this is Venerable Bede's commentary, not Matthew :)
    – brianpck
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 14:17
  • I don't know. In context it seems more likely that it's the translators' translation rather than the Pope's, but I'm not certain of that. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 15:37

A lot of people have said this already, but please let me say it again, this time quoting E. C. Woodcock, "A New Latin Syntax", Paragraph 209:

A gerund in the instrumental ablative is sometimes used so vaguely that it is almost equivalent to a present participle in agreement with the subject.

The example he quotes is from Livy 8, 17, 1: "Consules populando usque ad moenia pervenerunt." (The consuls came a-plundering right up to the walls.) This sentence is "almost equivalent" to "Consules populantes usque ad moenia pervenerunt."

To which I would add Saint Augustine, PL 38, 1348 (HT to the breviary, June 29): "Isti martyres viderunt quod praedicaverunt, secuti aequitatem, confitendo veritatem, moriendo pro veritate" which I would say is almost equivalent to, "Isti martyres viderunt quod praedicaverunt, secuti aequitatem, confitentes veritatem, morientes pro veritate." (These martyrs of yours saw what they had preached, having pursued calm, acknowledging the truth, dying for the truth.)

And likewise, "Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi, Sequere me," is almost equivalent to, "Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserans atque eligens vidit, ait illi, Sequere me."


I see it as an ablative gerundive expressing cause, followed by the result (…“he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”). Also it seems to me that “atque” has more of the sense of “and yet” or, less strongly, “and also,” rather than just “and.”


I think the best way to translate this into sensible English is: “So then Jesus saw the publican, and because he looked upon him with mercy and yet was choosing him, said to him, ‘Follow me’…”

  • 3
    The question seems to be mainly about parsing the Latin grammar, not formulating a fluent English sentence. Can you comment on the Latin syntax?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 18:47

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