The Politics of Papal Etiquette (to kiss the ring or not to kiss the ring?)

By Joe Ronan

Until comparatively recently, the etiquette of greeting people was rather straightforward.  A handshake would suffice for all other than close relatives, and even then polite restraint was the rule.   Increasingly though social greetings seem increasingly diverse and difficult to judge.  My own sincere and eagerly offered handshake can now be seen as overly formal when compared with a mix of hugs, kisses and full-blown embraces.

This minefield of greeting etiquette was evident in the viral video of the Pope greeting people at the Church in Loreto, Italy, where he was a recent visitor.

When I was young I recall the visits of a Bishop as being a great occasion in the life of a Parish. We were instructed that the correct greeting would be to make a short bow, with a gesture indicative of moving to kiss his episcopal ring.  I remember being told not to actually kiss it, but to just ‘not quite’ touch it to my lips.

Just as with the handshake, the point of the gesture is to signify respect for the individual being greeted and the office he represents.  The episcopal ring is a symbol of the way the Bishop is joined both to the Church and to his Diocese.  It is often referred to as being like a marriage.

My own Diocese (Hexham and Newcastle) installed a new Bishop last week. During the installation Bishop Byrne wore an episcopal ring that was recovered from St Cuthbert’s body in the thirteenth century. This ring is a treasure of the North East and beautifully symbolises the connection between our new Bishop and those of past centuries.

For the Pope, as Bishop of Rome his ring symbolises not just his connection to the Diocese of Rome but to the global Church as the supreme shepherd of the Church.  So the respectful gesture to the ring symbolises respect both for the office of Pope, and also the individual that holds it.

Over the years the degree of formality shown in greetings has changed. As a youngster in school the class would always stand if an adult entered the room, irrespective of who they were or what status they held.  Nowadays I suspect that degree of respect would be rare. Fifty years ago the appropriate dress and comportment greeting a Pope would be very strictly laid down and adhered to.  These days a much lighter approach is taken.  The full video of the visit to Loreto shows an extended session of greeting of both religious and lay faithful, including some instances of the gesture towards kissing that I had been taught and where Pope Francis seems happy with it.   The sheer variety of methods of greeting used goes to show not only that the rules have been relaxed, but also I think that people are no longer sure of what behaviour is expected.  There are even people putting their arms around the Pope, which would have been excoriated even a decade or so again (not to mention the anxiety it can cause to the security team).   One would hope that prior to joining the queue to greet the Pope, people would have received some instruction on what was considered appropriate in those particular circumstances; but perhaps people have become used to ‘doing their own thing’ or in the excitement of the moment just forget the guidelines.

The logistics of keeping such a visit on time also come into the picture.  There will be a strict timetable, with other groups to meet; functions to attend; traffic and air schedules to comply with. There do seem signs in the later part of the video of some speeding up of the process, and needing to move some hundred or so people through more quickly.

It is always difficult to ensure that under such circumstances the people for whom this is a once in a lifetime opportunity are given a little space, but it will also be the case that the sheer pressure of time and organisation will lead to overly hurried and pressured activity.

There has been a storm of comment on the meaning of the Pope’s actions in a particular section of the video, where he is withdrawing his hand quite suddenly, whilst also using shoulder touches and similar movements to move people along.  It has been variously claimed that this was a rejection of monarchical court procedure; that it was an abandonment of tradition, or that it was due to some form of inflammation or unknown ailment causing him pain.

The truth, as always, was a little more prosaic.  The Director of the Holy See Press Office Alessandro Gisotto released a clarification a couple of days after the visit, stating that “it was a simple question of hygiene”.  A report by the news agency Zenit goes on to say

Preventing the spread of germs, Pope Francis clarified to Gisotti, especially when there are so many people, arriving one right after the other, is the Pontiff’s goal. He noted how the Pope normally allows the kissing of the ring when we are speaking about single individuals or smaller groups.

The news coverage of such events is often focused on trivialities.  In practise Popes have always modified procedure; Pope John Paul II discontinued the use of the ‘sedia gestatoria’ or portable Papal Throne and replaced it with the much more practical Popemobiles. By the 1970’s the old hand-carried portable thrones may have seemed anachronistic, but actually had the practical use of making the Pope much more visible to the crowds – a function the Popemobiles were used to continue.

So tradition and convention is not always a bad thing, nor is updating it in a way sensitive to both continuity and progress.  It is to be regretted that in the kerfuffle over greeting protocol at the Pope’s visit, what he had to say and do in Loretto was largely overlooked.

Firstly he signed what is likely to be an important document – the Apostolic Exhortation ‘Christus vivent’ (Christ lives).  This document, due to be released on April 2nd is his response to the recent synod on Youth and Vocation.

In his address to the estimated 10,000 people gathered there, the Pope emphasised the role of young people in the Church and that ‘family’ and ‘young people’ are not groups to be addressed separately, but as a single group walking closely together.

He also reiterated his view of the family in modern society “In the delicate situation of today’s world, the family based on the marriage between a man and a woman assumes an essential importance and mission”.

None of that however was treated as being more newsworthy than the fuss over the greeting. It may not be ‘news’ to learn that the Pope is, after all, a Catholic, but his message, that Christ lives, is one that has been proclaimed for nearly 2000 years, and will still be being proclaimed in the far distant future.

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