Today is the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God: one of the holy days of obligation of the Christmas Octave and the first day of the New Year of 2020!

So what better way for a Catholic to celebrate and cheer, than to badmouth the Pope?

Yes, unfortunately, yesterday and today, Catholic social media has been boiling with a viral video of Pope Francis slapping the hand of a woman. The video can be seen below.


Before we begin, let’s be clear: yes, Pope Francis overreacted. No, it is not acceptable to slap someone, even under these circumstances. In fact, the Pope himself admitted to that, and he apologized today for his actions, saying, “The patience of love: love makes us patient. Many times we lose patience; me too, and I apologize for yesterday’s bad example.”

That said, let us examine the video in detail and ascertain whether the criticism that’s been hurled at him is warranted:

  • At the 20 second mark of the video, we see the Pope grimace with pain as the woman yanks his arm towards her, almost causing him loose his balance.
  • At the 21 second mark, we see the Pope trying to free himself from the woman’s grip, to no avail.
  • At the 22 second mark, he tries again to unsuccessfully shake her hand off.
  • That’s when he slaps the woman’s hand twice, finally breaking free (also 22 second mark).

Let us also remember that this incident happened completely by surprise, and only during two brief seconds. The reactions and the emotions involved were instinctive, defensive, and not in the least premeditated or well thought-out. Anyone could have reacted like this in the spur of the moment, especially an elderly person in visible pain from having been pulled like this. Is it justifiable to spew so much bile against the Holy Father for… this?

Of course not. That’s why papal critics have decided to spice things up a little bit more, as usual. They did this by starting two rumors:

First, some commenters on social media have been spreading the claim that the woman was begging on behalf of Catholics in China. This is very convenient, since one of the points in the usual litany of criticisms against Francis is the Vatican/China agreement on the appointment of bishops for the Chinese Church. These critics believe the Vatican betrayed the Catholics of the underground Chinese Church, arguing that these Catholics would be better off if the Vatican had not struck a deal with the Chinese state because of… reasons. Mike Lewis has already dispelled many of those misconceptions here at Where Peter Is.

The truth of the matter is that at this point no one seems to know what the woman was saying. Several of our contacts have confirmed that she was not speaking Mandarin or Cantonese Chinese. Our contributors and contacts have also ruled out Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tagalog. Some think she may be speaking a regional dialect of an East Asian language, or Japanese. On social media, some have suggested that she’s speaking Pidgin or heavily-accented English. Even CNN’s report stated that “it is unclear what she was trying to tell him.” (Maybe some of our readers will be able to help us decipher it).

Whatever she said, it is not really relevant to the point at hand. It may explain the woman’s eagerness to meet the Pope. But it says nothing about Pope Francis’s culpability. It’s quite likely that, considering so many Catholics in social media have not been able to determine what she said, the Pope couldn’t understand what she was saying either. Francis is not proficient in all languages under the sun, and the woman did not choose a good venue to make herself heard. The claim that the Pope was upset because the woman challenged him on the Vatican/China deal is simply absurd.

The second rumor that that has been spread is the accusation that Francis is heard calling the woman “bruja” (Spanish for “witch”) or “p*ta” (Spanish for “b*tch”) – see the 21-second mark. I must admit I find it interesting that papal critics have such strong hearing that they can recognize a Spanish curse word in this muffled speech, while they had so much difficulty hearing a woman clearly yell “Nuestra Señora de la Amazonia” during the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens. I guess one’s sense of hearing depends on whether something can be held against the Pope, or if it helps to put to rest an artificially crafted anti-papal controversy.

On my end, I have tried to listen very carefully and multiple times to what was said: it is simply not clear enough. It seems to me to lack the “br-” in “bruja” and the “-t-” in “p*ta”, to be either of those words. I thought it could be “deja” (“let go”), but it does not seem to be that either. In fact, it is not even clear to me if the alleged insults came from the Pope’s mouths or from the bodyguard crossing behind him to protect the pontiff (the lip sync is a little bit off in both situations.) Also, I find it odd that we can hear the voice of the woman so well (and even the voice of the child at the 17 second mark) and the voice of the Pope/bodyguard so poorly. Could it be the reaction from someone else in the crowd at a distance? I don’t know, and most people probably don’t either.

All that said, it would be irresponsible not to address the fact that I’ve seen defenders of the Pope piling up against the woman. We should avoid this opposite error. Yes, she was out of line. She yanked the Pope violently, made obvious by his wincing in pain. She did not let go of his hand, even when he clearly wanted to release himself from her grip. She did not express herself clearly to him. You do not behave like this with an elderly person. You do not do this to a Head of State, with his bodyguards nearby.

Having said that, she seems to be a devout person; we can see her crossing herself at the 11-second mark. While she makes the Sign of the Cross, we can see the expectation in her eyes. She was probably over-enthusiastic to meet the Pope, especially after what was likely a long trip from Asia. Then, at the 19 second mark, the Holy Father steers away from her, after greeting everyone before her, just as her turn was about to come. Her reaction, like the Pope’s, was incorrect but perfectly human.

In the end, this seems to be a misunderstanding based on two human beings reacting in human ways to a surprise situation. As regrettable as this situation was, it is also a non-story. Why then, did it gather so much attention? Why did people feel the need to shine the spotlight on such a petty matter? Why was it shared with gusto by so many Catholics on social media? This is the actual question that should concern us.

This does not happen in a vacuum. I’m pretty certain that situations like these are not as uncommon as people make them out to be. Any Pope is bound to have bad days in which he will treat the ones near him with undue harshness. In fact, I believe that the hand-slapping of an out-of-line laywoman would be viewed as normal and justified precisely in the alleged gilded-era worshipped by papal critics, when the popes had a more monarchical and paternalistic view of their flock than the current one.

However, I have never before seen Catholics so bent on bringing attention to a situation that would make the pontiff look bad. Which brings us to a sad conclusion: the only reason to bring attention to this situation is precisely to make the pope look bad. There is no other explanation for this, and the comments that have accompanied the social media posts prove it.

Actually, I have seen people do this before–but not Catholics. Or at least not self-described “faithful” Catholics. I have heard atheists and secularized Catholics say this: “As soon as I saw Benedict step out on the balcony of St. Peter’s on the day of his election, I felt a shiver come down my spine. I knew from his face that he was up to no good.” I saw militant atheists share unflattering pictures of Benedict to prove how evil he was. This attitude mimics perfectly the attitude of those who are now sharing this video and saying: “The mask of the Pope has come off, look at the rage in his face: now we see him as he truly is.”

Yes you do. You see him as human, prone to behaving in a human way. To judge his soul based on an angry face in a situation like this says more about the critic than about the Pope.

As it was with Benedict, the intention is to paint the Holy Father as an evil person. Why would one do that? Most of the time, it’s because his teachings are uncomfortable. This might give solace to people who are struggling with what the pontiff is trying to convey, but in the end it’s a weak consolation.

Regardless of whether the Pope slapped this woman’s hand, that doesn’t change the fact that he is the Successor of Peter.

Even if the Pope really insulted the woman with a curse word, that doesn’t change the fact that his teachings are magisterial, not his mere personal opinion.

Even if the Pope had not apologized, his Magisterium still would require submission of mind and will from his faithful.

And all of this does not prove that the Pope is not fit for his post, nor will he resign over such a trivial matter.

The Pope is not going anywhere, and neither are his teachings. So all of these efforts to twist every single one of his words and actions in the worst possible light are misdirected and futile. They won’t achieve their desired effect. Critics may want to violently yank the Pope in their direction, but reality will slap them in the hand until they let go.

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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.

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