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January 2, 2020

The Symbolism of the Pope Slapping a Woman on New Year’s Eve

 In this still frame from a video, Pope Francis slaps the hand of a woman to free himself after she forcibly grabbed the pontiff and pulled him toward her during a New Year's Eve event in St. Peter’s Square, Dec. 31, 2019.In this still frame from a video, Pope Francis slaps the hand of a woman to free himself after she forcibly grabbed the pontiff and pulled him toward her during a New Year's Eve event in St. Peter’s Square, Dec. 31, 2019. Vatican TV

While unrelenting news junkies spent the year’s waning moments toggling between the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the mega-fires in Australia, and Kim Jong Un’s nuclear muscle-flexing, who would have imagined the biggest New Years social media drama would involve the pope slapping a well-wisher in St. Peter’s Square? And a woman, no less. And someone, we might assume, from a different culture. 

In this still frame from a video, Pope Francis slaps the hand of a woman to free himself after she forcibly grabbed the pontiff and pulled him toward her during a New Year's Eve event in St. Peter’s Square, Dec. 31, 2019.In this still frame from a video, Pope Francis slaps the hand of a woman to free himself after she forcibly grabbed the pontiff and pulled him toward her during a New Year's Eve event in St. Peter’s Square, Dec. 31, 2019. Vatican TV

Watching the video or looking at screenshots, it turns out to be something of a Rorschach. Sampling the social response as to who was at fault, opinion seemed to split down the middle.

Judging from this frame, for example, it’s clear the woman clearly clamped on to Francis’s hand and wouldn’t let go:

In this still frame from a video, Pope Francis slaps the hand of a woman to free himself after she forcibly grabbed the pontiff and pulled him toward her during a New Year's Eve event in St. Peter’s Square, Dec. 31, 2019.In this still frame from a video, Pope Francis slaps the hand of a woman to free himself after she forcibly grabbed the pontiff and pulled him toward her during a New Year's Eve event in St. Peter’s Square, Dec. 31, 2019. Vatican TV

On the other hand, she clearly pissed His Holiness off:

The woman clearly grabbed onto his arm and wouldn’t let go. On the other hand, she clearly pissed His Holiness off.

(The frame at the top of the post captures the slap, but you can see it best in the video.)

The Jesuit Pope came to power as a humanist with high hopes for a social and environmental agenda. He hasn’t had a good run, and I would chalk some of this up to that frustration.

You can see the crisis weighing down the church also coloring the Pope’s empathetic failure. The moral, legal and media damage from widespread clerical sexual abuse continues to eat away at the church’s integrity. In his rapid and broadly-appreciated apology, that’s exactly what the pope chose to focus on, as if using it to set up the homily he delivered on New Year’s Day. The message of the Pope’s serman was that women are to be honored. He specifically emphasizing how humanity is understood by the way we treat a woman’s body.

There is also another element worth noting here. Citizens around the globe are feeling a growing disdain for leaders and governing institutions. On a daily basis, protest movements are lashing out against institutional power, authority figures, and their double standards. This media spectacle, taking place on the threshold of a new year and a new decade, offers a fascinating preview and an inescapable promise of more such scrutiny.

— Michael Shaw

Video via Vatican TV via Reuters. Caption: Still frames from a video, Pope Francis slaps the hand of a woman to free himself after she forcibly grabbed the pontiff and pulled him toward her during a New Year’s Eve event in St. Peter’s Square, Dec. 31, 2019.

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