The ritual was customary: Pope Francis visited an Italian shrine on Monday, and afterward greeted worshippers who waited in line to meet him. This time, however, the reception went viral. A 30-second clip captured the pope cheerfully flicking his right hand away as some supplicants attempted to kneel and kiss the ring there.
To the untrained eye, this behavior was at worst gently strange, and at best illustrated Francis’ unfussy approach to his office. This is a man who seems much more comfortable kissing other people’s feet (including inmates and refugees) than receiving their supplication. The Daily Show set the clip to a bleep-bloopy soundtrack, turning it into a video game call “Kiss the Ring”:
Everyone was having fun! Everyone, that is, except some traditionalist Catholics. Francis’ critics saw the gesture as a symbol of disrespect toward the office he holds. Matthew Schmitz, a columnist at the Catholic Herald, lamented that Francis was “embarrass[ing] the faithful in the name of humility.” Others took it as a “rejection” or “rudeness.” The conservative LifeSite called the clip “disturbing,” noting that the pope seems perfectly comfortable with expressions of personal devotion like “selfies and hugs.”
When a two-hour-long video capturing the pope’s full visit to the shrine emerged—and showed the pope had allowed some visitors to kiss the ring—it was analyzed like a Vatican version of the Zapruder film. “At the 50:50 mark, Pope Francis can be seen greeting priests and men and women religious, whom he allows to kiss his papal ring,” LifeSite wrote in an addendum to its initial post. “The Holy Father then begins to greet Catholic laity and begins pulling his hand away at 1:00:57.”
The pope received his visitors warmly even if he seemed to reject this particular small gesture. Why did this tiny change in protocol read so offensively to people already skeptical of his orthodoxy? For one, because they took it as another example in what they view as a long line of attempts to discard tradition. Kissing a bishop’s ring was a commonplace sign of reverence until the mid-20th century, according to this explainer from America magazine. A bishop’s ring symbolizes his “marriage” to the diocese he oversees; as bishop of Rome, the pope wears a ring representing both his leadership and service of the church as a whole.
But the gesture has origins in medieval European monarchies and over time has come to seem uncomfortably … royal. Pope Benedict XVI—revered by the same crowd that detests Francis—tried to end the practice of kissing the pope’s hand, “though no one followed the new protocol,” he lamented to journalist Peter Seewald in his 2010 book Light of the World.
Francis, meanwhile, has blamed the Catholic Church’s ongoing sex-abuse crisis in part on an inappropriate deference to hierarchical authority. “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” as he put it last summer. He has also promoted a “culture of encounter” whose emphasis on dialogue and equality is at odds with the kind of one-way reverence suggested by the ritual ring-kiss. This is the same pope, after all, who chose to live in a guesthouse rather than in the formal “Apostolic Palace.”
As is so often the case, those hoping for clarity from Francis were left waiting. But the clip portended neither the destruction of Catholic tradition nor the announcement of a radically egalitarian future. The Vatican first told journalists that the pope sometimes accedes to the custom, and sometimes does not. On Wednesday, he was photographed allowing nuns and priests to kiss his ring at a smaller reception in St. Peter’s Square. And on Thursday, a spokesman offered an even simpler explanation: “The Holy Father told me that the motivation was very simple: hygiene,” Alessandro Gisotti said. “He wants to avoid the risk of contagion for the people, not for him.” It may have worked to stop the spread of actual germs. But the moment itself was too viral to contain.