Pope Francis has been the subject of a few fake videos over the years. In 2015, for example, a humorous clip showing the pope performing the tablecloth magic trick was produced for The Ellen DeGeneres Show. A similarly fake video was created for The Jimmy Kimmel Show in 2017, that one showing the pope repeatedly slap away President Donald Trump’s hand.
So when a video of Pope Francis withdrawing his hand from a line of people as they attempted to kiss the papal ring went viral in March 2019 (promoted by some of the same comedians who created their own pope hoaxes), some viewers were unsure of the video’s authenticity:
But this was a genuine video of Pope Francis. It was filmed during his visit to Loreto, Italy, on 25 March 2019 and captured the pope greeting parishioners at the end of a service.
But why was the pope withdrawing his hands? The viral clip drew a number of theories. Some viewers hypothesized that the issue had to do with spreading germs, while others claimed it had more to do with Catholic tradition and the symbolism of kissing a person’s ring.
The viral clip shows about one minute of a greeting session in which the pope met with more than 100 monks, nuns, and parishioners. According to BBC News, these people were not given instructions on how to greet the pontiff, and while many simply shook his hands, others attempted to kiss his ring:
Official Vatican TV footage shows that Francis stood in a receiving line for around 13 minutes and received (by my count) at least 113 monks, nuns, and parishioners — either individually or in pairs.
No one appeared to offer any instruction on how to greet him. During the first 10 minutes, 14 people shook Francis’s hand without bowing down to kiss his ring.
In this time, 41 people bowed down towards Francis’ hands, either making the symbolic gesture of kissing his ring, or actually kissing the ring itself.
Eventually, the pope started to withdraw his hands as people attempted to kiss his ring.
Christopher Bellitto, a medieval church history scholar and professor at Kean University, and John Allen, a Vatican journalist, told the Washington Post that while kissing the pope’s ring was once common practice, both the Church and Pope Francis have started to move away from symbols of subservience:
Medieval church history scholar Christopher Bellitto, a professor at Kean University, said the ancient tradition of kissing the pope’s ring is not part of any formal protocol while greeting the pope, but one synonymous with patterns of behavior for how one would greet kings, queens and emperors.
“When one greeted Ramses or Nebuchadnezzar, I’m sure it was common practice to bow and kiss one’s ring.”
Now, says Bellitto, “it’s a leftover that is best left over.”
“This isn’t as much of a Francis story, as much as a story about the modern papacy,” he added.
John Allen, a veteran Vatican journalist and editor of the online Catholic news site Crux, concurred, saying Francis’s actions are one further move in a trend that’s continued since Pope John XXIII to “dial down the tradition of subservience,” which has traditionally marked the papacy over the centuries.
Eric Sundrup of America magazine noted that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were also resistant towards having parishioners kiss the papal ring:
Protocols evolve and changes can be confusing, especially when most people only meet a reigning monarch (or pope) once in their lives. As we have seen in the past few days, old habits die hard, even when the pope is trying to keep the receiving line moving. So while Pope Francis might not be a fan of hand and ring kissing, he is actually following the lead of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Before the Second Vatican Council, it was customary in most countries for both priests and laity to kiss a bishop’s ring upon greeting him as a sign of respect and obedience. But times change, and the gesture can also be seen as furthering clericalism and ties to temporal power. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before him have tried to discourage the practice when the pope is receiving visitors, and Francis was resistant to the practice when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires as well.
While kissing the papal ring may be going out of fashion, Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti spoke with reporters a few days after the video went viral and said that the pope withdrew his hands from some parishioners because he wanted to “avoid the risk of contagion for the people”:
“The Holy Father told me that the motivation was very simple: hygiene,” Gisotti told reporters. “He wants to avoid the risk of contagion for the people, not for him.”
The tradition of kissing the ring of a bishop or pope goes back centuries, as a sign of respect and obedience.
Gisotti noted that Francis is more than happy to receive the ring-kiss in small groups, where the spread of germs is more contained, as he did Wednesday when a handful of people were lined up at the end of his general audience to greet him.
Several bent down to kiss his ring, and Francis patiently allowed it.
“You all know that he has a great joy in meeting and embracing people, and being embraced by them,” Gisotti said.
It should also be noted that Pope Francis continued to greet parishioners after the events depicted in the viral clip. In addition to meeting a few more people in the church, the pope also met with a number of people after the service outside of the cathedral.
The entire service (and post service greetings) can be viewed in the video below. The pope starts shaking hands with nuns, bishops, and other parishioners inside the church around the 1:03:30 mark: