You’ve probably seen it floating around social media: an eloquent reflection on happiness from a “recent speech” by Pope Francis.

One Facebook poster described it this way: 

“He may not be able to stand anymore and suffering has shaped his character but this speech from Pope Francis yesterday was just INCREDIBLE!”

The speech begins:

You can have flaws, be anxious and even be angry, but just remember that your life is the world’s biggest contest. Only you can stop it from failing. You are appreciated, admired, and loved by so many. Remember that happiness is not having a sky without storms, a road without accidents, a job without effort, a relationship without disappointments.
Being happy means finding strength in forgiveness, hope in battles, security in fear, love in discord. It’s not only to enjoy the smile, but also to reflect on the sadness. It’s not just about celebrating success it’s about learning from failure It’s not just about feeling happy with applause, it’s about being happy anonymously. Being happy is not a fatality of destiny, but an achievement for those who can travel on their own.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? There’s just one problem. The pope never said that. He never said any of it.

The backstory: 

A passage attributed to Pope Francis [has] made the rounds in social media. Titled “Being Happy,” it is shared with an image of the Pope and his name under the passage’s concluding lines: “Never give up on the people you love. Never give up from being happy. Because life is an incredible show.”

A quick Internet search, however, reveals that the text is actually an almost-word-for-word translation of a Portuguese text titled “Palco de vida” (Stages of life), attributed to the renowned poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Only the concluding “Life is an incredible show” was changed from the less-exciting “Life is a no-miss obstacle.”

There’s an additional twist here: Even the attribution to Pessoa has been dismissed by scholars, citing major differences from his style and the absence of any actual manuscript. They conclude that it was likely a fabrication borne of the Internet…

… Apparently the phrases took a life of their own and spread throughout the Portuguese-speaking Internet with variations in scoring and attribution of authorship. Then someone decided to take a poem… paste such a small piece at the end and distribute everything as if it were the work of Fernando Pessoa. It did not take long for my three phrases to start being attributed to the Portuguese poet (after all, it is always nice to quote a famous Portuguese  writer instead of an almost unknown Brazilian blogger).

Fast-forward to September 2015. The Facebook page of a “Missionary Community of St Paul the Apostle and Mary, Mother of the Church”—a Kenya-based Catholic group—shared the same passage in English, attributing it, in what appears to be the first such attribution, to Pope Francis. Given Filipinos’ entrenchment in social media and our collective fondness for the Pope, it did not take long for someone to share it, and the rest is history.

We’ve seen this sort of thing happen a lot in the age of social media. Several years ago, I posted on how this phenomenon had sprung up around Mother Teresa.

Back then, people had been popularizing a series of “commandments” that were supposedly written by the sainted sister from Calcutta. (They begin: “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered, LOVE THEM ANYWAY.”).


The “Paradoxical Commandments” were not written by Mother Teresa, though she did help popularize them.

The Paradoxical Commandments were written by Kent M. Keith when he was 19, a sophomore at Harvard College. He wrote them as part of a book for student leaders entitled The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, published by Harvard Student Agencies in 1968. The Paradoxical Commandments subsequently spread all over the world, and have been used by millions of people.

Mother Teresa put the Paradoxical Commandments up on the wall of her children’s home in Calcutta. The fact that the commandments were on her wall was reported in a book compiled by Lucinda Vardey, Mother Teresa: A Simple Path, which was published in 1995. As a result, some people have attributed the Paradoxical Commandments to Mother Teresa.

That sort of thing has become such an industry with Mother Teresa, that there is now a website devoted to debunking false quotes. 

Maybe we will need to set up something similar for Pope Francis.

All of this is to remind folks (in the words of that ancient Russian proverb): trust but verify. Don’t spread things around without checking to see where they originated. This is how hagiography begins. (Don’t even get me started on the “Prayer of St. Francis.”) Don’t just accept something on face value. Sniff around. God made Google for a reason, and we have the ability now to carry all of human knowledge in a plastic box that fits in our pocket. Use it. Please.

As a journalism teacher in college once told us, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”