Post 324

Grace Refused: Reflections on Pope Francis' Slapping of a Woman's Hand

I’ll call her Alice. She’s the one whose hand got slapped by Pope Francis on December 31, 2019.

Alice’s demeanour is noticeably different from that of the people around her. Other people are smiling and look like they’re happy to be there on New Year’s Eve. Alice doesn’t look happy or relaxed. She isn’t really there just for the moment. She doesn’t have her phone out, because she’s not there to take photos or videos. She is really focused, and she’s chosen her location well. She is at the front, right behind the barricade, a testament to her planning. You don’t get to the front unless you wait a long while or unless you are pushy, or both.

Alice is so focused on Pope Francis that I say that the way she crosses herself as he gets nearer is just for visual effect and posturing. It’s not about praying. Even while she’s crossing herself, she’s looking around and she’s watching the Pope’s approach.

She is watching him with her hands clasped together, in a supplicating way. She is not smiling. She is just watching him, waiting for the moment when she will be able to speak with him.

There is a woman next to Alice, whom I will call Greta. Greta extends her hand to Pope Francis when he is directly in front of her. From our camera angle, in fact, he appears to be looking directly at her. He takes out his hand, and their hands are about 6 inches apart. Of course Greta thinks Pope Francis is going to greet her. But no — his hand goes up, up, up, and he is clearly looking above and behind Greta. Greta’s eyes follow his hand, and she no longer has hers extended. What is he doing? He has made eye contact with a young girl held aloft by an adult, a young girl with a pink hat and a big smile. She is happily waving to Pope Francis, and he steps forward because she isn’t in the front row. Maybe he will shake her hand? She is further back, and the barricade is there. The young girl prepares to give him a high-5, because his hand is so close to her that it’s more than a wave now. Does he reach it? Yes he does. The Holy Father has stepped forward enough, and extended his hand enough, that they make contact, and of course, they’re both happy about that. I’m happy for them too. Meanwhile, other hands reach up to touch his arm. I think people are just happy to be able to say that they touched him. They are planning to send texts to the people at home to report that.

I notice that Pope Francis, in this video excerpt at least, seems to particularly enjoy finding the children in the crowd, waving to them, talking to them, shaking their little hands. In fact I think it may be fair to say he finds it more enjoyable to notice a child in row two or three than an adult in row one.

When he is done with greeting the little girl with the pink hat, he is very close to Greta, and we see her getting her hand out again for a second try at a handshake. She almost had it the first time, and now he’s even closer. So she opens her hand, palm up, and it looks very much like his hand, which is palm down, is going to meet hers.

But you see, Pope Francis has decided that the high-five was the last of it for tonight, and he is actually beginning to turn away from the crowd. He is not planning on shaking Greta’s hand. She doesn’t know this yet. In her mind, it’s going to happen, because her hand is, once again, about 6 inches away from his. She’s been patient, and she too has expended effort in order to be where she is in the front row behind the barricade.

So as he lowers his hand, it appears that Greta’s upturned hand does make contact with it. And her hand is still on his arm as he turns away. Does he feel her hand? I suppose on some level he does, but his movements are unimpeded, and he is still smiling. I think it’s probably typical for people to hang on to him a little as he pulls himself away from the crowd. Greta watches his arm as it descends, and she continues to hold it, but not forcefully. Pope Francis is still smiling. The bodyguard is watching, but there is nothing unusual happening.

Alice has been watching too, and even though she has been mostly motionless all this time, waiting for the Pope, she has not smiled. She is, as I said, very focused. She is like a cat watching a mouse. Some say that she came from Hong Kong or China in order to ask Pope Francis something pertaining to Hong Kong or China. They say this because she’s Asian and because they have tried to understand some of the words which are audible on the video segment. I don’t know where she’s from, or what she says, but I completely disagree with those who speculate that she was speaking to him in an Asian language. She would be smart enough to know that he doesn’t speak any Asian languages. I think she would use English.

What I see is that Alice changes when Pope Francis begins to turn away. When Pope Francis begins to turn away, she opens her mouth and unclasps her hands. Now she looks like she’s really supplicating, arms outstretched, and protesting. I think her pose is partly dramatic, and partly genuine. I say it’s dramatic because she’s launching into her planned speech, or a short introduction, and I say it’s genuine because she’s really shocked that he got so close and he’s turning away.

So her arm is outstretched, and Pope Francis’ arm is nearby. Greta hasn’t let go yet, actually, and so this affects the way his arm descends somewhat. It is somewhat outstretched, and, as it happens, is very close to Alice.

Alice, like a cat, quickly moves to grasp his arm. Her hands were outstretched anyway, and so it’s just a little reach by her left hand to snag his arm. Her hand is about 4 inches away from his arm. She leans forward even more and catches it with her left hand. You will see she smiles here. Her mouth is open and she looks happy.

As Pope Francis steps away, his weight is on his left foot, and he is facing away from the crowd. When Alice brings her right arm into the act, and pulls his arm closer, the Pope senses that things are not right. He cannot move forward further, and he begins to lose his smile. He holds his ground, which means that his body is in one spot but his arm is now outstretched behind him. He turns his head back to see who is pulling on his arm. We can see that Alice is grabbing his hand with both of hers, and we still see, almost strangely, that Greta’s upturned hand is still there, as if glued. The force, however, is all from Alice, because it isn’t until Alice pulls that Pope Francis’s arm changes course and his upper body gets pulled back to the crowd.

At the same time the Pope is looking at Alice, Greta turns to look at Alice too. I think Greta looks surprised to see that Alice has pulled Pope Francis in. Alice has reeled him in in the way a cat might reel in a fish. Pope Francis’ mouth opens as if he is in pain.

And indeed, it is not enough that she has grasped his hand and that he is now looking at her.

Alice takes this as her chance to speak, and talks nonstop as she forcibly continues to pull him closer to her. He takes about two steps back to her, and he is joined by his bodyguards who also approach. They see that His Holiness has been pulled, and that he shouldn’t be. It’s the shorter bodyguard who can see what is happening and he steps in to intervene while saying something.

Pope Francis pulls his arm down and away from Alice, but Alice won’t let go and she keeps talking. By the time Pope Francis has done this, we can see that the bodyguard is gripping Alice’s left arm. Alice hangs on and keeps talking.

He tries a second time to shake Alice’s hands off of his, but Alice doesn’t let go. She is talking. He’s in the middle of his third shake when he brings his left free hand into the picture.


He swats her hand once, while seeming to yell at her, and by then the security guard is holding both of Alice’s hands. There is an important moment when the Pope and Alice are looking at each other, and then the Pope, whose hand is now free, turns and leaves.

He looks very unhappy. Alice says something as he departs and she looks unhappy too.

There have been many reactions to the incident. Some people say that there have been too many reactions to the incident, and that we should all move on because Pope Francis has apologized. It is true that he apologized in a general fashion. He apologized the following day, January 1, in one sentence, and it was this: “So many times we lose patience – even me, and I apologise for yesterday’s bad example.”

I disagree that this incident is now behind us.

This incident has become infamous, and will remain so. This incident will always be a memorable event in his papacy, even amongst his supporters. I am one of his supporters, and I know that this event will never entirely fade away. It has brought ridicule upon Pope Francis and upon the papacy in many ways.

As it happens, his actions happened on the eve of his homily on the Feast of Mary, Mother of God. In that homily, he said:

The rebirth of humanity began from a woman. Women are sources of life. Yet they are continually insulted, beaten, raped, forced to prostitute themselves and to suppress the life they bear in the womb. Every form of violence inflicted upon a woman is a blasphemy against God, who was born of a woman. Humanity’s salvation came forth from the body of a woman: we can understand our degree of humanity by how we treat a woman’s body.

How shall we understand this tremendous ‘coincidence’? How is it that just before speaking so forcefully about the respect owed to women, Pope Francis has been videotaped slapping the hand of a woman?

God has allowed it to happen thus.


I think that this remarkable sequence of events is meant to draw our attention to the message. Would we have even known the inspired words of the homily, but for this incident? It also means that we are meant to think about the incident more deeply.

The apology doesn’t sweep this incident away, and most certainly, the apology doesn’t act as a moratorium on discussion of the matter.

The fact is that Pope Francis did inflict a form of violence on a woman — a petty, insulting form, but a form of violence.

In his defence,
a) this woman caused him physical pain,
b) she surprised him,
c) she treated him with less respect and decorum than he is used to and which befits his office,
d) he is 83 years old, and not as strong as before,
e) she spoke in an unfriendly and urgent way, and may not have been understandable to him in the circumstances,
f) she would not let go of his hand, even when he tried to shake it free, and
g) he was probably tired.

a) she is a guest in his city, Vatican City,
b) she is likely a pilgrim, and has travelled a considerable distance,
c) she is likely a Catholic laywoman, and therefore one of his flock,
d) she has likely waited for several hours to see him,
e) she is a stranger to him, which means that physical boundaries are more important,
f) she is smaller than he is,
g) she is a woman, and
h) she is a daughter of God.

One of the most critical elements in all of this is the fact that God gave, and continually gives, Pope Francis the ability and the grace and the knowledge to behave properly, and Pope Francis refused it here. Do you not think that God gives abundant graces to those who hold this office? I have said that he gives special help to those who lead countries, and celebrities in the public eye. Would he not help the one who is charged with leading and guarding his flock? Would he not help the one who has been chosen to show all humanity that Jesus is truly the Son of God?

So you see, when Pope Francis slapped this woman’s hands, and rebuked her, Pope Francis was slapping the hands of Christ, and rebuking him.

Am I going further than the Pope himself went, when he said that every act of violence against a woman is a “blasphemy against God”?

By his actions on the eve of the Feast of Mary, he disgraced Our Holy Mother, Mary, too.

That’s the truth.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I continue to pledge my allegiance to Pope Francis, and I do not support those who attack his doctrine. You can see that the doctrine is clear, solid and inspired. But this was a very public act, and it is good for us to address what has happened.

I see, in his sinful act, three things.

I see, first of all, pride. He felt humiliated and embarrassed at being yanked backwards by such a small woman in front of everyone. He was embarrassed also that he couldn’t free himself from her grip. Moreover, he had made a decision to leave, and now he was being led where he did not want to go.

I see, secondly, a mixture of racism and ageism. I believe if the woman had been visibly older, he would have been more merciful. Or if she had been younger, say, 12 or 13, he would have been merciful. And I believe that if she had been either more racially familiar (South American, say) or more racially unfamiliar (African, say), then he would have been more merciful. The thing is that some types of people attract our sympathy sooner than others, and there are some races which people in the public eye are more careful to not offend.

I see, thirdly, sexism. If a man had pulled him in this way, he would not have physically challenged him. He may have rebuked him, yes, but based on what everyone knows about hand slapping, we know that it is not typically the way a man deals with another man. A man will hit another man in the face or shove him roughly if he wants to fight. We all know that the slapping of hands is what has so traditionally been done to women and children. Sadly, part of Pope Francis sees it as an acceptable method of dealing with those who are in a subordinate position when they do something wrong. His upbringing may explain this, but it does not excuse it. In his reflexive use of this method, we see that he does not understand all of the forms of violence against women (and children).

All forms of violence against women are damaging to the women and those who inflict the damage. Society is debased as a whole whenever violence (in any form) against woman is seen as understandable. I have seen comments online by people coming to his defence, and some of them say that, in the same situation, they would have not hesitated to hit this woman in the face.


So you see, demonstrating that even a “little” bit of physical force is “sometimes” acceptable opens the door. This man thinks that such-and-such a situation warranted such-and-such force, and this other man thinks that such-and-such a situation warranted this other kind of force. The cry that “it’s justified!” should make us stop and think.

Apart from self-defence, a man is always in the wrong when he behaves violently toward a woman.

And no, this was not about self-defence. By the time he turned to see who was holding him, he knew that he wasn’t really going to be in any danger. By the time he looked upon her holding him, it was about anger and it was about vengeance. In that moment, he didn’t care about anything other than putting this woman in her place. He was indignant and he scolded her, physically and verbally.

As he walked away, Pope Francis would have known, already, that he had done wrong. I wish he had stopped, and turned back to where she was. It was within his power to reclaim that moment, and break from protocol. Let the guards wait for a moment. Look, the Pope is coming back! Look, he has stopped in front of that woman again! What is he saying? He must be apologizing, because his head is bent. Oh look! He has gotten down on his knees in front of her! Oh my I hope you have the video camera going! Oh my! She is starting to cry. Oh my have you ever seen such a thing!

Prompt action on his part would have led to a reconciliation. The public nature of this reconciliation would befit the public nature of the violation.

As it is, the one-sentence apology that he made on New Year’s Day is insufficient, because he did not direct it to the woman. For shame! He directed it to the world in general, saying that he is not always a patient man, and that he gave a bad example. He is asking us to forgive him for being less than the person he wants to be, but do you see that he is misdirecting his words?

What about the woman? Does she not deserve an apology?

Trust me, she would receive it. Her friends and her family members — they all know that she’s the one who attracted his wrath. What about an apology to the woman you slapped, Holy Father?

Say to the cameras, “I do not know your name, and I do not know where you are from, but I heartfully and humbly ask, when you learn of my request, that I have the opportunity to meet with you in person to personally apologize to you for my thoughtless, rude, and unChristian behaviour on the eve of the Feast of Our Lady. I hope to meet with you in order to discuss the matter which you wanted to discuss. I will give you my time. If you have already left Vatican City, then I will personally pay for your travel expenses to return for this meeting.”

As I said in a recent post (“Unclassified”), it is more difficult to address a wrong than to avoid committing it the first time, but it can and must be done. It is good that Pope Francis’s sinful behaviour has been revealed, because he needs to think deeply about his rejection of God’s generous and unfailing grace in the moment of temptation. He chose wrongly, and based on the vagueness of his apology, it appears he has not yet admitted the wrongness of his words and actions.

You see, God is all about second chances, and in his great love, he is allowing the great and small sins of the great and the small to come to light these days. We are in a special time, and God knows that sometimes people don’t acknowledge their sins until others observe them. But it is time to acknowledge our sins. We must acknowledge them and then we must ask for mercy from those we have harmed and from God.