The woman is pressed against the wooden divider, separating her from the man she has waited in line to meet. But before he gets to her, he moves in the opposite direction. She reaches out and grabs the man’s hand with obvious force. The man reacts angrily, tries to pull his hand away, and then slaps the woman so she’ll release her grip. The look on his face is a mixture of exasperation and annoyance.
In any other context, this exchange could be chalked up to bad manners and impatience.
But this was not just any context. It took place in St. Peter’s Square, and the exchange was between a pilgrim and Pope Francis.
As things tend to do these days, the video of this momentary interaction went viral, spurring thousands of social media posts and coverage from the national and foreign media. The pope incorporated an apology for the incident in his New Year’s address. “Many times we lose our patience,” he said. “I do, too, and I’m sorry for yesterday’s bad example.”
I was particularly affected by the video of the pontiff’s reaction, for personal reasons. In 1984, I lived in Rome. Every Wednesday, I would take the No. 64 bus to the Vatican from my apartment to attend the public papal audiences at St. Peter’s. Six years into his pontificate and three years after the assassination attempt, Pope John Paul II had become one of the most beloved and charismatic international figures. Having made friends with two nuns at the Vatican gift shop, I was often allowed to slip into the auditorium where the pope would briefly speak and then bless people.
Never once did I see John Paul turn away from anyone in either anger or impatience. He had almost been killed by an assassin’s bullet, and yet refused to retreat behind a self-imposed wall of fear. He was always welcoming, always willing to reach out and be embraced, especially by children.
I have also been in proximity to Pope Francis. When he came to Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families in 2015, I sat six rows away from him when he spoke at Independence Hall. He, too, had charisma. He, too, interacted with the crowds. And while I don’t often agree with what I see as his hyperpartisan view of morality in this world, I respect him as the infallible representative of Christ. But that infallibility relates only to church doctrine.
It does not automatically give him a pass for bad behavior, even when he acknowledges that behavior with an apology. Pope Francis has been very outspoken about protecting the rights of refugees and marginalized communities, and being strong stewards of the environment. He has been critical of big corporations, building walls, and has famously said, “Who am I to judge?” when dealing with the LGBT community, indicating a willingness to be more inclusive.
He has earned a reputation for compassion. That’s why the sight of him slapping a woman’s hand and then grimacing struck such a discordant note.
You could excuse him for his age, or the fact that he was tired. Christian blogger Matt Walsh tweeted in defense of Pope Francis: “I’m sure all the people giving Pope Francis a hard time have lots of experience dealing with adoring mobs and have never once lost their patience while being physically accosted by a crazed fan.”
Problem is, the video doesn’t show a “crazed fan.” It shows a woman who waited patiently for what was perhaps her only chance to ever touch the leader of her church. And, to be blunt, adoring mobs go with the territory if you are the Vicar of Christ.
I applaud the pope for acknowledging his mistake and apologizing publicly. It is honorable of him to seek forgiveness. I understand that papal infallibility does not mean moral perfection. Francis may be Christ’s representative on Earth for my people, but he is still a human being.
But John Paul, now a saint, was once a human being as well. And instead of clips showing him slapping a woman’s hand, you will find photos of him shaking the hand of his attempted assassin.
That’s truly being Christlike.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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