Pope Francis slaps a woman’s hand after she grabbed him near the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Video screengrab via Vatican News

Pope Francis is not the first pontiff to cause controversy with a slap

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Sometimes even the pope has to apologize for being grumpy.

On Wednesday (Jan. 1), Pope Francis kick-started the new year with an apology for slapping the hand of a woman who grabbed his arm in St. Peter’s Square the night before.

“Love makes us patient,” Pope Francis told faithful gathered to celebrate the feast of the Solemnity of Mary and the 53rd World Day of Peace.

“We often lose our patience. Me too, and I apologize for the bad example I set yesterday,” he added.

While walking amid the crowds near the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday night, Francis reached his hands to greet faithful and children. One woman grabbed his hand, causing him to lose his balance. Visibly irritated, the pope slapped the hand of the woman twice with his left hand before walking away.

The images of the papal slap made the rounds on the internet and especially social media. Where one stands regarding Pope Francis plays no small part in whether his act is interpreted as “angry” or “righteous.” 

And he's not the first pope to take part in a controversial slap.

In September 1303, Pope Boniface VIII was slapped by an envoy from Prince Philip of France in the small town of Anagni, just outside of Rome. (There's some question over whether the envoy actually slapped the pope in the face or not.)

Boniface had been working to reduce the influence that Philip had on the Catholic Church. So Boniface issued a papal document, claiming that the pontiff had absolute power and supremacy over kings of earthly realms.

For the pope’s admirers and courtesans, who included the famed painter Giotto, this was a sound and essential move. But for his foes, who included the poet Dante Alighieri, such an offense merited a very specific place in hell – the eighth circle, to be exact.

Philip was not thrilled by the papal document. In a move known as the Slap of Anagni, or the Outrage of Anagni, Philip's envoy took Boniface prisoner, then had him tortured and beaten for a few days. He was released after the local populace objected and he died only a month later, paving the way for the French dominion over the papacy.

In the past, slaps were part of Catholic rituals.

Young men becoming priests were lightly slapped by their bishop as were young people who were being confirmed.  The practice has been largely abandoned, for the most part because it was misunderstood.

Thanks to video and social media, there is no doubt concerning the details of Pope Francis’ New Year's slap, which was captured on video. The response was mixed.

For Italian right-wing populist Matteo Salvini, the event offered a special opportunity to target and make fun of the pontiff, who has been an opposition force for Salvini's anti-migration policies.

For many women, Francis’ slap took on another dimension.

Francis has condemned violence against women and in a speech on Tuesday spoke of victims of abuse  who are “continually offended, beaten, raped, forced into prostitution.” He also spoke in support of giving women more leadership and influence. These words strongly clashed with the widely distributed images showing Francis slapping a woman, twice.

Wednesday was also not the first time a pope apologized publicly for something. Throughout his pontificate, St. John Paul II apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the African slave trade, the deaths of Muslims during the Crusades, the Holocaust and the Inquisition. His successors, Benedict XVI and Francis, have apologized repeatedly for the clerical sex abuse crisis.

In apologizing Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke about “stepping down from the soapboxes of our pride."

“So that the year that begins will be a journey of hope and peace, not in words, but in daily actions of dialogue, reconciliation and the care for creation,” he said.