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Papal slap was a result of human imperfection... his apology the acceptance that we are all sinners

Moment of controversy: Pope Francis is grabbed by a woman in St Peter’s Square before he slaps her hand in admonishment
Moment of controversy: Pope Francis is grabbed by a woman in St Peter’s Square before he slaps her hand in admonishment

By Paul Hopkins

Pope Francis was greeting worshippers around the Vatican's giant nativity scene following his New Year's Eve liturgy when a woman in the crowd reached out, grabbed the 83-year-old pontiff's left arm with both her hands and yanked it quite forcefully towards her. Visibly upset, the pontiff pulled his arm away, admonished the woman and slapped her hands twice before turning away, frowning. He was obviously in pain.

"Hold the front page, Fred!".... "Roll out the breaking news tickers... the Pope's done it again!"

Obviously, ahem, a slow news day, as a new year and a new decade come in and every desperate newshound and anti-papal pundit is referring to March 2019, when Francis was criticised for pulling his hand away from pilgrims in the Italian town of Lareto. Later, the Vatican did not help matters when it said the withdrawal was "merely" an attempt to prevent the spreading of germs.

Good God, but aren't we easily incensed? I mean, really. Come on. Here is a frail octogenarian, who has spent the seven years of his leadership of the world's 1.2bn Catholics traipsing relentlessly around the globe, being pawed and pulled at and selfied more times than a stadium full of ageing rock stars.

And he has, in his own, yes, humble and inimitable way - Francis resides in basic quarters, travels locally by bus and goes frequently among the poor in the hamlets bordering the Vatican - seldom, if ever, complained about, or shown complacency towards, the hankering faithful.

I would gesture to say that no one else, no politician, celebrity, or world leader, has had such a punishing, or remorseless itinerary as has the Argentina-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Jesuit Pope.

He's 83. I'm 20 years younger and I have trouble, believe me, in a crowded bus, or shopping centre.

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Then there's the security issue: his enemies aside - and there are those who would seek to harm him - remember 1981 and John Paul II?

The woman in the Vatican throng the other day was pulling at him quiet forcefully with both arms and his momentary pain was obvious.

What if she had succeeded in pulling him right into the crowd? Small wonder Francis reacted the way he did, instinctively.

But he had the wonderful wherewithal to apologise afterwards. Francis went off-script the next day during the midday Angelus to acknowledge the incident. "Love makes us patient," he said, adding, after briefly choking up, "We often lose our patience; me, too, and I apologise for my bad example last night."

In this fast-paced, frenetic, anything-goes world, is there a better example of the frayed state of our collective nerves than the fact that the Pope slapped a woman's hand?

Is there a better illustration of how we should deal with our inevitable imperfections than his swift and unreserved apology?

Watch the video of the pontiff on New Year's Eve and you can understand both how the woman forgot herself and why the Pope reacted as he did.

He is walking down the rope-line, stopping to shake hands with the cheering throng.

The woman crosses herself and folds her hands, as if in prayer, as Francis draws closer. She stares intently, but he has begun to turn away.

She reaches out and grabs him, with one hand, then the other. She yanks him backwards and will not let go.

Then comes the Pope's instinctive reaction, then the slap... and another.

The encounter in St Peter's provoked scores of headlines and tweets by secular and Catholic media alike.

Some initial and disorienting headlines went no further than variations of "Pope slaps woman", suggesting a level of violence absent from the actual encounter.

The incident was even mockingly recreated on Instagram by Matteo Salvini, Italy's former interior minister and leader of Italy's radical-Right Northern League - no fan of Francis, because of the Pope's frequent defence of the rights of refugees and migrants.

Predictably, Catholics who have come to view Francis as a threat to the clarity of Rome's teaching could only see the worst in his reaction to the grasping pilgrim.

Some even delighted in noting that the Pope's "mask" of conviviality and kindness had fallen away during the encounter.

Good God Almighty.

And if He is in His heaven, believe me, there is nothing He frowns down on more than a slow news day.

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