Rorate Caeli

The Papal slap

A lot of people have weighed in on Pope Francis repeatedly slapping the hand of a pilgrim in St Peter’s Square. Reactions have not divided simply along ideological lines. Austin Ruse suggested, on Twitter, that Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II would have reacted even more fiercely to a pilgrim grabbing their hands and not letting go. I was undecided myself at first. The pilgrim’s action did seem a little aggressive. On the other hand, there she is, in the video, a rather small Chinese lady, making a sign of the cross to steel herself to take the hand of the much larger Pope, surrounded by body guards. From what one can see of the timing of the incident, the Pope reacts as he does not to the surprise of the physical aspect of the gesture, but to what she is saying. She is saying something about Hong Kong…

Being a celebrity has its downsides. People recognize you in the street. Some of those people can be unpleasant; some are desperately boring. The former British Prime Minister has had to deal with a succession of people wanting to perform a ‘citizen’s arrest’ on him for war crimes. Happily, the kind of people likely to accost the Holy Father tend to come into a quite different category: sincere, pious; occasionally a little simple minded; perhaps obsessive, or even slightly unhinged. I know this kind of person quite well, because I’ve had to deal with them myself.

Yes, you don’t have to be all that famous for this to be an issue. As the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society, there is a small number of people who know who I am, what I look like, and in some cases have an exaggerated idea of my importance or influence. I would never meet them except for the fact that they and I attend some of the same events, things arranged by the LMS. So I go along to these events and there they are: the lady who thinks her cats will go to heaven; the man who thinks his bishop is more likely to go to the other place; the chap fixated on how some specific Mass time should be changed; the woman who thinks we should reach out to some particular demographic group, or minor celebrity. I’m not complaining. Priests have to deal with this kind of person all the time. So do bishops and cardinals. People who are well-known enough to attract a potentially overwhelming number of them, may need the assistance of security men or the like. But by the time anyone reaches that kind of exalted position, they’ll have been dealing with the over-insistent, not to mention pious fruitcakes, for decades, unless they’ve been hidden in a Vatican library all that time.

As a matter of fact we have a Pope today who has not been hidden away, in a library, office, or lecture-room. In the decades before becoming Pope he was a diocesan Bishop and Cardinal, who liked to emphasize his connection with the people. There is a much-reproduced photograph of him as a Cardinal on public transport. When he became Pope he insisted on living in a clergy hostel, instead of the Apostolic Palace, because, he said, he needed to be among people.

It comes as something of a shock, then, to see how he dealt with this Chinese lady. Of course it is easy to imagine that Hong Kong might be rather a sensitive subject for him. Having signed a secret agreement with the atheist, Communist government of the People’s Republic of China, the Vatican appeared to be telling bishops of the ‘Underground Church’ there to cease to operate independently of the ‘Patriotic Church’, an arm of the Chinese state. This remarkable concession to the Chinese Communist Party has not, however, elicited any lessening of the persecution of the Church in China, and more recently Vatican advice to ‘Underground’ bishops and priests has been that they must ‘follow their conscience in deciding whether to sign up to the ‘Patriotic Church’, which may involve a formal rejection of the authority of the Holy See.

If that U-turn wasn’t embarrassing enough, the Hong Kong protests have shone a harsh light on the Vatican’s attitude to Communist China. Not so long ago Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, claimed that China is a model for the implementation of Catholic social teaching. But it turns out that it is not just Catholics who don’t like abortion who are uneasy about Communist China; nor it is not just the small number of observers who care about religious freedom.

No, it is young, educated, middle-class, Chinese people in Hong Kong. They know that rule by the Communist Party does not mean some kind of paradise where (as Bishop Sorondo seemed to imagine) there is no poverty or drug abuse, but a system without law: where people disappear, where property can be seized without explanation or redress, and prestigious public works collapse because their budgets were pillaged by corrupt officials.

In this context, a degree of desperation among Chinese Catholics—whether from the mainland or Hong Kong—is easy to understand. Pope Francis’ reluctance to engage with her is also very comprehensible. But as he has acknowledged, it does not reflect well on him.

The terms of this acknowledgement are themselves interesting. Pope Francis said that he had not given a good example. This wasn’t an apology to the woman involved. It reminded me of Pope Francis’ apology about the Pachamamas thrown into the Tiber. He didn’t apologize to the many Catholics confused and scandalized about representations of a heathen deity being honored in Catholic churches. He apologized for them. Perhaps, if pressed, he would make a similar apology to the divorced and remarried, for the unfortunate fact that some faithful Catholics persist in asking for clarification of his teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, and the conditions for the fruitful reception of Holy Communion. He has already said something similar to homosexuals.

It is time the Holy Father made the effort to engage with Catholics deeply concerned about his policies and teaching on a range of issues, and not just slap them away.