One of the criticisms I heard about my article on the papal hand-slapping controversy was that I was trying to excuse Pope Francis of his wrongdoing. Of course, I was very clear in my article that the Pope had not reacted well, and that he had apologized, so this criticism doesn’t really stick. However, my article did indeed try to put the whole situation in perspective: first, we have to remember the Pope’s humanity, old age, surprise, and probable pain for having his arm yanked like that, which explains his abrupt reaction. Second, it needs to be said that this non-story only became newsworthy because it was catapulted to international attention by the buzz generated by a certain crowd.
The latter is important to understanding the whole thing. In the wake of the media kerfuffle, I showed how some Catholics reacted in a very nasty way towards the Holy Father, not affording him the charity that non-Catholics were willing to extend to him. Similarly, I showed how these Catholics work night and day for to dig up reasons to accuse the Pope and cast him in a negative light . In my piece, I argued that they were not really concerned with the lady whose hand was slapped: they were simply using her as another club to hit the pontiff with.
On the day the controversy erupted, papal detractors were demanding for the Pope to apologize for his behavior. Francis proceeded to do precisely that on the day after, in his Angelus address. Some critics immediately waved this apology away, attributing it, not to contrition, but to public relations. Other critics were quick to shift the goalposts: it was not enough for the Pope to apologize publicly, he would have to do it to the woman in person.
Today, there was a development into this (non-)story. It seems that a week after the incident, Pope Francis received this woman in an audience, where they shook hands and exchanged a few words. Beyond a doubt, Francis apologized for his reaction to her in person, as the critics had demanded of him (otherwise, their meeting would not make any sense).
If Francis received her on January 8, why are we hearing about this almost a month after? The first pictures that circulated on social media–before the story was picked up by Catholic news outlets–had the watermark of the official Vatican photographers who take pictures of the pilgrims at papal audiences. The pilgrims are invited to go to a specialized store inside the Vatican the day after their audience to collect the pictures they want from the entire archive (it is expected that they will buy the pictures where they themselves appear). If they pay a fee, they receive a copy of the pictures they selected without the watermark.
So the most likely explanation is that these pictures were circulated either by someone close to the woman, who had access to the pictures, or by someone else who, upon browsing the online archives, recognized her. This could not have been a PR stunt by the Vatican. It makes no sense for them to have held onto these pictures (with their watermarks) only to release them after the controversy had died out.
It is quite clear that Pope Francis met this woman and apologized to her in person. Now, there is only one loose thread: what about those who piled up on the Pope last month? Even those who believe the Pope’s reaction was wrong, are they willing to acknowledge how their rhetoric might have also been over-exaggerated?
And what about those who demanded that the Pope apologize to her in person? Will they also apologize for their rash judgment of the Pope? Will they at least acknowledge the good the Pope did by apologizing to her, since they were so keen that he do so? Or will they move the goalposts once again and find the Pope’s actions to be lacking for some reason they’ll invent on the spot? Or will they simply ignore this, and move on to the next anti-papal rant, talking point, or manufactured controversy, since this one has already outlived its usefulness?
If it’s the latter, then it is obvious that their concern for the lady was just a matter of convenience. They were not offended at the way Francis treated her — they were offended at Pope Francis beforehand, and sought to project their offense on a convenient target. They didn’t really want the Pope to apologize to her in person (otherwise they would congratulate themselves for it happening) — they just wanted to find fault with the Pope so they could criticize him. The articles I wrote during this whole controversy will, sadly, be proven right.
I hope that at least some of those who badmouthed the Pope will follow his example and at least try to make things right by acknowledging what happened on January 8. This would be a first but fundamental step towards healing the division in our Church. Francis seems to be willing to do whatever he can to make things right. Are his critics willing to do the same?
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.