On New Year’s Eve, 2019 Pope Francis made headlines news when he slapped the hand of a woman as he greeted pilgrims at the Vatican. Francis’ patience snapped when the woman suddenly snatched at his hand and yanked him towards her as he reached out to greet a child during a visit to the Vatican’s nativity scene. The woman would not let go and as he pulled his hand free his face was distorted with anger.
This is how the official Vatican’s news service described the incident: “As he greeted the faithful, a woman tugged at his arm, causing a shooting pain to which the pope reacted with an impatient gesture to free himself from her grip.” During his Angelus address to a packed Saint Peter’s Square on New Year’s Day, Pope Francis apologized for his bad example observing that sometimes even he lost patience.
Later he met the woman briefly in a private capacity following a papal audience in the Paul VI Auditorium, during which the pontiff expressed his remorse according to reports in the Italian media. The two met, during what is called the “baciamano” a time reserved for certain pilgrims to greet the pope following an audience. In photographs, they can both be seen smiling at each other as they shake hands. A priest standing beside the woman appears to be acting in the capacity of interpreter.
It was a happy outcome to what many, especially those critical of Pope Francis, perceived as an unfortunate incident.
This week on Wednesday 26, the pope kissed the numbered tattoo of a survivor from the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz after his general audience with the faithful at the Vatican. Lidia Maksymowicz, a Pole of Belarusian origin was only three years old when she was taken from her home along with her mother and grandparents to the concentration camp in Poland. Her family were suspected of cooperating with the local partisans opposing the Nazi occupation.
On arrival, she was forcibly separated from her mother and had to watch her grandparents being ushered towards the gas chambers. “My mother and I – dirty, hungry, afraid – we obeyed the soldiers who shouted incomprehensible words while the dogs barked. We didn’t understand anything, we did everything they said, we were terrified.” Then she was led to the barracks where children were housed where she was fated to be one of the many women, children, and people with disabilities who were experimented upon by Josef Mengele, the evil Nazi physician known as “the Angel of Death.”
Lidia never stopped believing in God despite the horrors that were heaped upon her. When she uncovered her arm to allow Francis to see the tattoo, the pope gazed at her for a few moments, then bent down and kissed the number that after seventy-six years reminds her daily of the torment she endured.
Though the meeting with Francis was short in duration, Lidia had time to hand over to the pontiff three gifts that she felt represented her life experience and signified memory, hope, and prayer. The survivor handed the pope a Polish commemorative handkerchief, a painting of a mother and child walking towards a death camp, and a rosary showing St John Paul II. “After John Paul II, I love Pope Francis,” she said. “I follow his ceremonies on Television, I pray for him every day. I’m faithful to him and fond of him.” His gesture, she affirmed gave her strength and reconciled her with the world.
A Man among Men
These two very different encounters show just how important the physical presence of the pope is to Catholics. Many of the faithful queue for hours and hours in the hopes of seeing him even if only fleetingly. This is understandable in light of the fact that they consider him to be the earthly representation of Christ; the direct descendant of Peter, chosen by Jesus himself to lead his church. This makes him unique among world leaders and famous figures. However, he is not Jesus, he is a man who has been graced with the highest office in the Church.
He is also an elderly man who has health issues and who experiences the decline in vitality and ability that all humans face as they undergo the process of aging. I am sure he recalls the assassination attempt on his predecessor, Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981. After that attack, the pope remained in a critical condition for many days. At one point he suffered an infection that nearly killed him.
It is certain that the pope must often feel stressed as he moves among the throngs of people who have one aim, namely to catch a glimpse of him. At times it may seem that his personal space is being invaded. His position is unique and not always an easy one to assume.
To the outspoken critics of his reactions on New Year’s Eve, I would respond that he is, after all, he is only human like the rest of us and he had the humility to apologise.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan