ROME – Never let it be said that Pope Francis lacks imagination when it comes to making his peak moments on the public stage interesting. This New Year’s holiday, he managed to generate an entirely unforeseen storyline with what we might, tongue-in-cheek, call his “Great Swat.”
By now, everyone knows what happened: When Francis exited St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve for his traditional visit to the Nativity scene in the square and then his round of greeting people along a set of barriers, an overly aggressive woman grabbed his hand and just wouldn’t let go, causing a visibly angry pontiff to turn back, swat her hand a couple of times and scold her.
I couldn’t actually make out what Francis said in that heated moment, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, “Happy New Year.”
For those who follow Francis closely, the revelation that an 83-year-old Argentinian male has a temper wasn’t exactly a thunderclap, since we’ve seen it often enough before. Nonetheless, video of the incident went viral and became an internet sensation.
The next day, during his noontime Angelus address, Francis was musing on God’s patience, and then said we all lose our patience sometimes, himself included, apologizing for his “poor example” the previous evening.
What made the situation especially ironic was that Francis dedicated his homily at the New Year’s Day Mass to the issue of violence against women, saying at one point that “by how we treat a woman’s body, we can understand our level of humanity.”
Herewith, three quick take-aways from the “Great Swat” of New Year’s 2020.
Imagine this scenario: A deep-pocketed Madison Avenue PR firm is posed a challenge. A major public figure is planning to deliver a strong message about violence against women, but in a holiday moment in which attention is likely to be directed elsewhere and to happier subjects. Given the familiarity of the issue and the inopportune timing, on its own that message isn’t likely to generate much media buzz.
What might the PR firm recommend to gin up some interest?
In all honesty, it would be hard to conjure anything more effective than what Francis actually delivered, even if it’s probably not quite the way a Madison Avenue agency would have counseled him to go about it.
I was doing some hits for CNN on New Year’s Day, and at one stage a few of us were in the newsroom here in Rome going over the pope’s homily. A colleague at one point said, “You know, this is a really strong homily, and he says some important stuff.” There was a pause, and then I asked: “Okay, but would we be on air today talking about it without the slap?”
Without a second’s hesitation, every head in the room nodded in the negative.
Obviously, the pope probably won’t want to go to this particular well very often, but in this one instance, it has to be said he found a way to grab an audience that otherwise might well not have materialized.
Public figures often find themselves apologizing for one thing or another, and often their mea culpas don’t have much effect. They come off as formulaic and insincere, more an exercise in damage control than genuine contrition.
Francis, however, got a fair bit of credit for his insta-apology on New Year’s, seeming gracious and pastoral. The reaction illustrates one of the fixed laws of the universe when it comes to such matters.
To wit: “The effectiveness of an apology varies in direct proportion to whether most people believe you actually have anything to apologize for.”
Honestly, people watching the scene play out probably came away thinking that if anybody needed to apologize, it was the grasping woman rather than the pope. After all, this was an octogenarian who suffers from sciatica we’re talking about, whose hand was being yanked by someone who clearly didn’t understand when it was time to let go.
Had Francis done something more egregious in response, an apology might not have sufficed. By simply responding in a way most people could imagine themselves doing under similar circumstances, he converted losing his cool into a boost for his reputation for graciousness and human decency.
(In describing public reaction, by the way, I’m talking about ordinary people who generally don’t pay a lot of attention to papal happenings. Among Catholic insiders, naturally, response tended to break along ideological lines, with traditionalists in particular shouting “a-ha!” at a supposed unmasking of Francis’s inner nastiness.
(You know who actually were especially quick to defend the pope in this case? Some of my Roman friends who drive cabs, run restaurants or otherwise have to deal with grabby, aggressive tourists all the time, a few of whom were cheering for Francis to go even more ballistic.)
A Thin Penumbra
In the various TV and radio bits I did about the New Year’s incident, probably the best question I got all night came from a CNN anchor who asked, “Where was Vatican security while all this was happening?”
It’s a great question, since it’s hard to imagine something similar happening to, say, a U.S. president. Secret service agents are trained to study faces in rope lines, to watch for anyone who seems overly clingy or aggressive, and to defuse such situations before they happen.
Granted, Francis is without the pope’s longtime chief of security, Italian layman Domenico Giani, who was sent packing earlier this year over a scandal that involved leaked copies of internal investigations.
One imagines that right now, Gauzzi Broccoletti, Giani’s successor, is making his staff watch video tape of the New Year’s incident to try to ensure that something similar never happens again. (Broccoletti heretofore has been an expert in cybersecurity, so this sort of flesh-and-blood challenge may be a bit new.)
In general, however, over the course of roughly 25 years of covering popes, I have to say that the security membrane around them on such public occasions is much thinner than those which surround other major world leaders.
In part, that’s because popes think of themselves first and foremost as pastors, and don’t want to separate themselves from ordinary people any more than necessary. In part, too, it’s because popes believe that ultimately their security is in the hands of a much higher power. In part it’s also a cultural difference, because Italians are just generally more relaxed about such things.
In any event, perhaps the price of being the world’s parish priest is running the risk of such minor annoyances as we saw New Year’s Eve. Honestly, the remarkable thing probably isn’t that it happened, but that it doesn’t happen more often.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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