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Why did the viral slap garner Pope Francis largely favorable news media coverage?

Starting the new year with an apology is never good.

That’s how Pope Francis kicked off 2020 just a week ago following an incident in St. Peter’s Square the night before. The incident in question was the pope being grabbed by a woman. The pope, in turn, slapped the woman’s arm and the whole thing went viral. That was followed by memes and lots of news coverage on a day usually dedicated to replaying ball drops and advice on hangover cures.  

The media’s reaction to the slap, from social media to major news organizations, again showed the divide that continues to exist among Catholics around the world. Those who like Francis saw a man being grabbed and reacting like anyone would. His detractors saw a man with little patience for parishioners.

The media coverage was all over the place on this one, starting out extremely negative and changing to a largely positive one overnight after Francis apologized for his angry reaction. The Holy See’s own news operation, Vatican News, described the incident this way:

“His salvation is not magical, but it is a ‘patient’ salvation, that is, it involves the patience of love, which takes on wickedness and removes its power. The patience of love: love makes us patient,” said the Pope. “We often lose patience. So do I. And I apologize for yesterday’s bad example…”

The apology Pope Francis offered was in connection with a moment from his visit to the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday evening.

As he greeted the faithful, a woman tugged his arm, causing a shooting pain to which the Pope reacted with an impatient gesture to free himself from her grip.

That Vatican News attributed the pope’s reaction to “a shooting pain” has no attribution. The Vatican press office never gave an official reason and also failed to comment on the possibility of that poor security contributed to the problem, as AFP pointed out. In his public apology on New Year’s Day, the pope also failed to give a reason for his reaction. Instead, Francis went off-script and delivered what sounded like a heartfelt apology. At the same time, no media outlet that I saw knew the woman’s identity or interviewed her.

Most of the divide over the viral moment played itself out on Twitter. #DUH

A wonderful news analysis piece by Kevin Clarke in America magazine noted the following:

The theme of the pope’s homily on the feast of Mary, Mother of God, just a few hours after the incident, focused on peacemaking and a call for the end of violence against women. During his first Mass of 2020, Pope Francis said: “Every violence inflicted on a woman is a profanation of God, who was born of a woman. Humanity’s salvation was accomplished through the body of a woman; how we treat a woman’s body is an indication of our level of humanity.”

A few media professionals found the apparent irony irresistible. “Pope Francis has used his New Year message to denounce violence against women, hours after slapping a woman’s hand to free himself from her grip,” noted CNN’s official Twitter account. A similar tweet from EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo invited an avalanche of criticism for both Pope Francis, deplored as a hypocrite and worse, and Mr. Arroyo, whose intentions were challenged by other commentators. Mr. Arroyo defended his tweets as mere reporting of the night’s events, but many Twitterati (it should be noted, this correspondent among them) deplored connections to the pope’s words on violence against women as a distortion of the incident and a case of false equivalence.

Hours after the incident, more sober headlines attempted greater clarity. CBS news ran an AFP wire report with the headline: “Pope Francis apologizes for swatting hand of woman tugging his arm”; and at The New York Times: “Pope Francis Apologizes After Slapping Away a Clinging Pilgrim.” The Associated Press ran the story under “Pope: Sorry I lost patience with hand-shaker who yanked me.”

Two days later what the unhappy encounter had to say about the “real” Pope Francis — revealed finally as a sour hypocrite or merely an actual human being who can be startled into anger — remained hotly disputed on social media. It would appear that in ending a volatile and fractious 2019, the world’s Catholics have not made a great beginning in 2020, carrying on a hermeneutic of antagonism that has often poisoned dialogue over the era’s significant ecclesial, social and political challenges.

Furthermore, that last paragraph from this excerpt is the lasting takeaway from an incident that was both unfortunate and very human.

Does it say anything about this papacy?

It depends on who and what you read. Overall, the pope escaped the incident in a largely positive light.

Why?

Francis is largely loved by progressives and the news coverage he’s received over the last few years largely reflects that. The pope was given the benefit of the doubt following his apology, although not all public figures would have received such treatment. Imagine a similar slap involving President Donald Trump?

The coverage, largely in the form of opinion pieces, gave Francis a slap on the wrist. John Allen at Crux took a more humorous approach to the whole thing, joking about the temper of Argentine men. In the end, his piece — with its various takeaways — appeared supportive of Francis.

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.

Following this logic, the viral papal slap did get attention in places one wouldn’t expect.

Case in point: Tony Norman’s column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Norman writes primarily about politics, not religion. Nonetheless, he seems at ease with the subject and what emerges is a strong column With regards to the slap, this was Norman’s take:

No doubt about it, the Pope was pissed. Even so, no one begrudged him the right to be startled and to react the way most humans do when our personal space is invaded unexpectedly. After all, doctrinal misunderstandings and exaggerations aside, all popes are only human.

We’re sophisticated enough to understand Pope Francis’ anger while feeling badly for the woman, as well. She probably schemed for years to get close enough to a man advertised as God’s living representative on Earth to pour out her troubles in a few stolen seconds in a reception line. Who else in the whole world would be as predisposed to smile beneficently at her no matter what?

The clingy pilgrim probably saw herself in the tradition of another “pushy woman” in the New Testament who reached out, uninvited, for the hem of her spiritual master’s garment. Hadn’t a chronically hemorrhaging woman, designated ceremonially unclean by her religion, provoked Jesus to ask, perhaps indignantly when he felt power leaving his body unexpectedly, “who touched me?”

That incident from two millennia ago ended with a healing, a confession and kind words. The unknown woman in the video got something unique and memorable, too. She got an apology from Pope Francis the next day.

In the end, the common thread is that the pope’s apology is what helped him get positive coverage. It may very well be that apologies by public figures are so rare that Pope Francis can serve as an example of what it means to make a very public mistake, then atone for it in much the same way.

The pope’s apology didn’t go viral, but that says more about social media and the modern world than it says about this Pope Francis. Instead, there was plenty of positive coverage of it to counter those memes.

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