By Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.
Now billed as “The Slap Seen ’round the World,” the video footage of the Holy Father’s encounter with an apparently over-zealous admirer at St. Peter’s Square on New Year’s Eve has gone viral. In a pontificate that has seen the Catholic world become deeply polarized over the style, personality, and actions of the Church’s current visible head, the video has ignited quite an ocean of invective.
For those who dislike this pope, his angry, petulant reaction reveals the face of the man they feel they have known since his accession to office—nasty, cruel, and hypocritical. Despite all his words about love and accompaniment, his angry slapping of the woman’s hand and his subsequent expression call to mind the shredding of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, the deposition of the Grand Master of the “Sovereign” Order of Malta, the defense of the perverts and criminals in his entourage, the steady drone of insults, and so on. In other words, for such folk, the video reveals to the world the face of the man whom they know, as opposed to the ever-smiling visage created by his spin doctors.
For his defenders, the Pope’s reaction was the extremely natural one of an elderly and infirm man suddenly and forcefully grabbed from behind. They point out that just prior to this event there is footage of him helping a child up, smiling at him, and giving him a rosary. To these folk, the interpretation of the video by the Pope’s opponents is at best horribly unfair. Moreover, they point out, the pontiff very publicly apologized for his action. Some blamed his security detail for allowing the incident to happen.
This writer can only agree with both sides. To be sure, a surprise like that would be very unpleasant, and, given my own temperament, I might well have reacted in precisely the same manner—or worse. His Holiness did indeed apologize. However, by the same token, the incident did reveal to the camera a side of the man that many of us have come to know all too well. The Holy Father’s annual addresses to the curia, for example, seem now like an endless chain of invective-filled rants. To non- and especially anti-Catholics, Christ’s Vicar on earth may present a smiling visage; those who attempt to follow the Church’s teachings, however, often behold a very different face. Kissing his ring or showing any other customary sign of respect to his office is quite liable to earn one at the very least a rebuke.
As fascinating as all of this talk about the Pope may be, it is the as yet anonymous pilgrim who interests me. We all have our own view of the Supreme Pontiff, but what of the woman whose hand he slapped? Apparently Asian, she is seen in the longer versions of the video to stare intently at the Holy Father, cross herself, and then grab his hand and shout pleadingly at him. What was on her mind?
We cannot know for sure unless and until she is identified or comes forward. However, I am willing to hazard a guess (and just as willing to own myself wrong if my guesses are disproved). As just mentioned, she looked at him very intently and crossed herself; I suspect that she was gathering her resolve and uttering a prayer to God for help and guidance. I do not know what she said, or what her ethnicity is, but if she is Chinese, I suspect that she was appealing to the Pope on behalf of the persecuted Church in China.
As most people are aware, after the fall of China to the communists in 1949, the regime set up a “Patriotic Church” to which some of the ecclesiastical properties were given, and which went into formal schism from the Holy See. In response, an Underground Church grew up, of clerics and laity faithful to Rome. In the 70 years since then, the latter have undergone countless martyrdoms and continued torture, imprisonment, and other forms of persecution. Pope Benedict XVI declared May 24—China’s patronal feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians—to be the International Day of Prayer for the Church in China.
Under this pontificate, however, the Holy See made a deal with the communists. With the celebrated Cardinal McCarrick claiming credit for laying the groundwork, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, concluded the treaty on September 22, 2019. In return for the Vatican recognizing some of the “patriotic” bishops as legitimate, they declared the Pope to be head of the Church. Meanwhile, the faithful in China got nothing. As retired Hong Kong Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Zen declared the previous day, the Holy See was “giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves.”
So it has proved. Since then persecution of the Church has increased, with churches being destroyed, children prevented from attending Mass, and new regulations requiring recognized religious groups—including the now semi-official Catholic Church in China—to render complete and total submission to the Communist Party. By any objective standard, Pope Francis’s China policy has been a complete and utter failure. A martyr Church has been betrayed—we must hope—unwittingly. Certainly, those of us who feel under assault of the policies of the current pontificate may be forgiven for seeing in this action one typical of the fecklessness we perceive in almost all decisions of the Holy See these days.
Which brings us back to the scene outside St. Peter’s. I may be completely wrong; the lady might have been a Vietnamese-American attempting to thank the Holy Father for his appointment of Vietnamese bishops in the United States. Until and unless we learn otherwise, her resolved and then pained expression shall be to me the face of the Church in China, betrayed by those who should be foremost in aiding her. May Our Lady of China illumine the Holy Father’s mind.