The woman crosses herself and folds her hands, as if in prayer, as the pope draws closer. She stares intently, but he has begun to turn away. She reaches out and grabs him, with one hand, then another. She yanks him backward and will not let go. The pope slaps her hand — once, and then again. He turns away, glowering.
“Frankly, the pope kind of lost it,” Catholic writer John Allen Jr. told CNN.
Really, haven’t we all? “Love makes us patient,” the pope said the next day, veering from his scripted homily. “So many times we lose our patience. Me too, and I apologize for yesterday’s bad example.”
At the dawn of a new decade, we live in a world on edge, understandably so. Every politician, every monarch, every pontiff who ventures onto a rope line understands that risks lurk — crazy people intent on doing harm, but also overzealous, overexcited fans. And those are just the uncertainties you can imagine.
Pope Francis knows this as well as anyone. He made the decision to dispense, when possible, with the bulletproof Popemobile — a “sardine can,” he called it — that would have kept him walled off from his flock. Yet there have been other moments when overexuberant fans tested papal composure. On a trip to Mexico in 2016, a fan grabbed the pope’s robe, causing him to stumble onto a child in a wheelchair. “No seas egoista,” the pope shouted at the fan. “Don’t be selfish.”
You don’t have to be a celebrity to identify with this reaction. If love makes us patient, as the pope advised, love also has its limits. Sometimes there are too many grabby hands, too many voices clamoring for our attention, too many demands on our time. These moments may be fleeting — the children grow, the nest empties — but in the instant, it is enough to make you shout about selfishness.
And there is another unsettling layer at work: the omnipresence of danger. It lurks in St. Peter’s Square, but it can emerge, we have been made painfully aware, during Communion at a church in a small Texas town or a Hanukkah party at the home of an Orthodox rabbi in suburban New York, at a California high school or on a bridge in London. No place is safe; no sanctuary is truly a refuge. The resulting anxiety erodes patience.
Grace helps restore it. The pope’s apology came quickly and without condition. Rather than explaining himself or suggesting that responsibility was shared, which it surely was, his statement was powerful in its simplicity: “I apologize for yesterday’s bad example.”
It is tempting to fantasize about such words emanating from the mouth — or the Twitter feed — of a spouse, a sibling, maybe a colleague, perhaps even A Certain Person living on Pennsylvania Avenue. But the truth is that apologies, sincere and unmediated, do not come easily to most of us. Certainly not to me.
“I apologize for yesterday’s bad example.” Those are not bad words to mark the dawn of an anxious new decade or to keep in mind as we make our imperfect way forward.