That Latin phrase must please all those with even a weak ear for the poetic. The words are big this morning because the papers are reporting the Pope’s address to “City and World” (or “City and Earth”); it is the Pope’s Christmas address. It happens to be newsworthy, this year, because, in praying for peace, Pope Francis included the following sentence: “And I also invite non-believers to desire peace with that yearning that makes the heart grow: all united, either by prayer or by desire” (link). Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal rendered “non-believers” as “atheists,” perhaps because that word is more dramatic; but never mind that. In the spirit that Pope Francis urges, I enfold the media in a peaceful embrace today.
I had been under the impression that “Urbi et Orbi” goes back to ancient Rome as an early sort of “State of the Union” address. Turned out I was wrong. Wikipedia dates the address to the thirteenth century and the reign of Pope Gregory X. Wiki then adds a reference to the Polo family (whose most famous member is Marco). Soon after Gregory’s election, Niccolo and Matteo Polo brought him a message from Kubla Kahn, and the Pope then responded to it. Some people, anyway, link this fact to the name of the Christmas message—although, seems to me, the Pope is always addressing the earth, not just the City of Rome.
Urbs, in Latin, simply means “city”; the origin of that word is not know, but, seems to me, might be a modification of orbis, meaning circle, ring, hoop, or disk. Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the “circle” had begun to transform itself into a “sphere” or a globe by the thirteenth century already (in Old French)—thus by Gregory’s time. Galileo didn’t arrive until the sixteenth and died in the seventeenth century. To us in the twenty-first, “orb” certainly means a sphere and no longer a circle. And as that geometrical concept has expanded, so has our concept of peace, at least as Pope Francis sees it. It has claims on all of us, believers or unbelievers alike.