Footage of Pope Francis pulling his hand away from being kissed by a long line of people has gone viral, with conservative critics condemning what they said was Francis’s “graceless disrespect for the tradition”.
In the video clip filmed on Monday in a church in Loreto, in the Marche region, Francis is seen retracting his right hand as Catholics attempt to kiss his ring. Three days later, the Vatican spokesman said that Francis was worried about spreading germs.
However, according to experts and senior members of the Catholic church, Francis’s gesture indicates a uneasiness with an element of traditional protocol that has lost its original meaning.
“For some, kissing the ring … has become a sort of reverence toward the person and not the institution that he represents,” said Monsignor Calogero Peri, the bishop of Caltagirone, “and this is why the pope retracts his hand. It is a way of reestablishing the equality between the church and the faithful, a human gesture that communicates that the pope and the faithful are made of flesh and bone like everyone else, to break down the differences.”
The tradition has slowly transformed over time, Peri said, into a sort of “medieval vassalage”, a “monarchic ring-kissing”.
Bishops and cardinals also wear rings bearing symbols of the church. “I, too, pull back my hand when the faithful try to kiss it. I prefer to embrace them instead,” says Peri.
The bishop of Mazara del Vallo, Monsignor Domenico Mogavero, agrees. “If a priest who knows the true meaning of that gesture tries to kiss my ring, I allow him to do so. But if I perceive that churchgoers want to kiss my hand out of personal devotion, I too retract my hand and attempt to shake theirs instead.”
Perhaps sharing this sentiment, on Wednesday Francis allowed nuns and priests to kiss his papal ring during his weekly audience in St Peter’s Square, two days after the controversial video in which he pulled his hand away from members of the public.
“He’s making sure that they engage with him, not treat him like a sacred relic. He’s the Vicar of Christ, not a Roman emperor,” tweeted the papal biographer, Austen Ivereigh.
Some Vatican watchers noted that even Francis’s predecessors Benedict, a hero to nostalgic conservatives, and John Paul II did not like having their hands kissed – at least not by long lines of people.
But Francis’s reluctance was not appreciated by ultraconservatives.
Rorate Caeli, a website read by Catholic traditionalists, tweeted: “Francis, if you don’t want to be the Vicar of Christ, then get out of there!”
LifeSiteNews, a conservative Catholic website that often criticises the pope, called the episode “disturbing”.
“I’m sure the pope has his reasons,” said Monsignor Antonio Raspanti, bishop of Acireale. “I personally let people decide if they want to kiss my ring or not. But I don’t think we should kill a tradition because we fear people have misinterpreted it.”
In any case, the informal abolition of kissing the papal ring is by no means the first case of breaking an ancient church protocol. More than 50 years ago another tradition with ancient origins was abolished: kissing the papal slipper. Monarchs, bishops and cardinals would prostrate themselves before the pontiff’s feet to kiss his slippers.
In 2002, at the end of a summit by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, an entire delegation from Benin headed by President Mathieu Kérékou bowed and knelt just to kiss the pontiff’s hand and feet, under the embarrassed and shocked gaze of Pope John Paul II and his staff.