On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2019, Pope Francis slapped a woman’s hand as she clung to him, and grabbed him while he was making the rounds greeting pilgrims at the Vatican. The following morning, the Pope apologized for what he called “yesterday’s bad example”. The footage of the Pope, freeing himself from the woman, with a scowl on his face, has since gone viral, but I am pleased that there are more people in support of the Pope than against him. Significantly, there has been no outrage. The Pope’s apology came swiftly in less than 24 hours but he actually didn’t need to apologise because he did no wrong.
What is established is that the Pope, often decorated with the toga of spotlessness, perfection and sainthood is human after all. He is like us. He is one of us. Like everyone else, if he feels threatened or unsafe, he will try to protect himself. The Pope was reacting to an invasion of his space. It is fine to shake hands but some people don’t know when a handshake sends a different signal. They grab. They linger. Women probably understand this better. The moment a handshake becomes an unwanted and unwelcome gesture, the other party is bound to recoil in horror or anger. That is precisely what the Pope did. He slapped the woman’s hand twice and freed himself.
I do not agree with those who argue that this is an indication of lack of clarity about Church teaching or that it is a case of “violence against women.” In any case, the Pope’s hand swat was just a mere tap. This wasn’t a case of an Anthony Joshua slapping an over-eager Asian woman at St. Peter’s square. Where was Vatican Security by the way? In his Angelus remarks on January 1, the Pope delivered a message of hope and preached about “violence against women.” He has been accused of hypocrisy for that but his critics are again unfair to him because the equivalence that they seek to establish with the event of the night before is false.
For me, by offering an apology, the Pope sets a good example and tone for the new year and decade. He reminds us of a value that is increasingly missing in social relations between the powerful and the ordinary in our world. The Pope is leader of over 2.1 billion Catholics in the world. He controls minds and imaginations. To see the head of such a large congregation getting angry in public, and even getting “physical”, is a reminder of the commonality of human emotions, but his apology in an age when many, especially the powerful and the privileged have lost the capacity to say “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to do that” is the most ennobling aspect of the incident. When last have you as a person, tried to say: “I am sorry”? In today’s world, we rarely apologise for the gaps between acts and intentions. We don’t care enough about the feelings of others. People are just intentionally offensive, be they leaders or followers – and that is why the world is such a troubled place today from Ukraine to Crimea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, North Korea and the United States. Even when some people try to be contrite and they offer apologies, they sound more like Prince Andrew of the United Kingdom making empty noise about obvious wrongs, or like Jeremy Corbyn’s hollowness on anti-Semitism.
In this matter, we have focused more on the Pope, perhaps understandably. But let the point be made: that the woman who grabbed him is an archetype for followers who do not know their boundaries. Ordinary people tend to cling to leaders, particularly religious leaders. In the Bible, Luke 8: 40-49, the people crowded and pressed against the Lord Jesus Christ and a woman touched Him prompting Him to ask: “Who touched me?” Someone touched me, I know that power has gone out from me”. These days, the people overdo it, because they believe that their salvation lies with that touch, that encounter with the man of power or the symbol of divine authority. Many Christians worship Man rather than God. But it is perfectly normal for the Pope to act like a human being and good for all of us to see that he is just like “us”.