January 17, 2020

In recent headlines made across the globe, Pope Francis was shown on camera smacking the hand of a woman who had reached out and grabbed on to him. In a rare display of anger, Pope Francis then turned abruptly and walked away.

At first, this news brought reactions of shock and dismay, and then a bit of empathy. After all, this is the Pope who has done away with the Popemobile, a bullet-proof vehicle formerly used for papal visits among crowds. He has chosen to be among his constituents, not barricaded from them. And while he is accessible and welcoming nearly all of the time, he just so happened to lose his cool. When it went sour in that moment, many came to realize perhaps he had legitimate reason to be angry. And yet, he apologized.

The Pope’s apology was remarkable – nearly perfect – in every way.

  • It was prompt. He offered his apology the next day, included in his homily. No drawn-out process of days or weeks strategizing about how to respond or what to say.
  • It was succinct. He did not distract from his honest intention by rambling, or bury his apology under lengthy explanations. He simply said, “I apologize for yesterday’s bad behavior.”
  • He did not attempt to justify or explain. Often when we apologize, our habit is to say, “I’m sorry, but…” and then we follow that with a rationalization or excuse for our bad behavior. This detracts from the sincerity of the apology. Pope Francis simply said he lost his patience, and then he apologized.
  • He did not blame the woman. How often have we heard an apology that starts, “I’m sorry if you’re offended,” or “I’m sorry if it seems like…”? Make no mistake, that is not an actual apology. That is an attempt to avoid taking responsibility. It’s as though you’re saying that you are sorry, but only sorry someone took offense, and not sorry for the role you played in that offense. This is where the Pope’s apology really stands out. As noted in this article in The Washington Post, the Pope was right to be frustrated. The woman was out-of-line in her action of reaching out and grabbing on. He makes no mention of her error, does not blame her for his loss of patience. He takes full responsibility for his own actions.

Pope Francis leads by example in his humanity missions, in his openness and selflessness, and even in how he handles his missteps.