During a gathering in Saint Peter’s Square for a New Year’s Eve celebration,
Pope Francis was shaking hands with various people behind the barricade in the manner of a politician “pressing the flesh” during a campaign appearance. No papal blessings were administered, only handshakes, as usual.
An obviously Asian woman made the Sign of the Cross as Francis moved down the line toward her, evidently hoping and praying that she would be able to have contact with him in a moment. But just as he reached her, Francis turned away from the crowd. She then grabbed his right hand and tried to pull him back toward her while saying something that is difficult to decipher, although some claim it was a reference to the persecution of Catholics in China. Francis reacted with rage, slapping her hand twice and yelling “Hands! Hands!,” with an angry scowl on his face, which was in full view of the camera as he walked away.
As a Google search for “Pope slaps woman’s hand” will show, the world press and YouTube exploded with coverage and even instant parodies of the incident, including one by the Italian politician Matteo Salvini, whom Francis has refused to meet because of his opposition to mass illegal immigration. There was even a piece in the New York Times, and a YouTube video linked above garnered 3.5 million views in less than two days. The next day Francis, clearly humiliated by worldwide adverse publicity, publicly apologized for “yesterday’s bad example” during a speech in which, with exquisite irony, he denounced the abuse of women. But this is hardly the first time Francis has denounced in others the fault he himself exhibits, the most prominent example being his constant denunciations of observant Catholics as “rigid,” “Pharisaical” and a swarm of other insults, for more than six years, at the same time he condemns gossip and judgmentalism.
And yet too much has been made of this incident. Seen in the best light, we have an elderly man who already tends to be cranky reacting angrily and spontaneously to the woman’s rudeness. While the outburst does show a less-than-saintly demeanor — one can hardly imagine a Pope like Venerable Pius XII acting in this way — that does not explain the worldwide attention to the incident.
Here, I believe, is what does explain it: Francis has carefully cultivated the persona of the meek, kind and humble Pope who is a veritable font of mercy, unlike his stern predecessors. But in that unguarded moment he revealed that this persona is a public relations facade behind which an ordinary man, prone to ordinary (and perhaps even inexcusable) outbursts of anger, is carefully hidden from view. Also revealed is the truth that Francis may actually be less meek and humble — by far — than Benedict XVI, whom the press falsely depicted as an aloof and intolerant “regalist” with a penchant for red leather shoes and kingly pomp.
If one is going to act like a politician, cultivating a public image that does not correspond to the real person seen in private, which is what politicians do, then one has to suffer the adverse consequences for public opinion when the image is revealed as fake, including a parody by a fellow politician as seen with Salvini’s video. As for the papal apology the day after, it is fair to see this as damage control motivated by a storm of bad publicity, for as we see here, this is not the only time Francis has erupted in anger at people’s attempts to grab him, which he himself invites by his politician-style wading into crowds. No apology on that occasion, however, as to which the publicity was minimal in comparison to what the world saw on New Year’s Eve.
There are vastly more important issues arising from the words and deeds of this
Pope, but the slap heard round the world resonates with the public mind because it is connected to an assiduously managed public image that, in one moment, fell apart. He who lives by public relations dies by public relations gaffes. That is as true of publicity-seeking Popes as it is of politicians.