What should we make of Pope Francis bowing when greeting people?

Pope Francis recently bowed to Queen Rania of Jordan. What should we make of this?
Pope Francis recently bowed to Queen Rania of Jordan. What should we make of this? (photo: Register Files)

Word is racing around the Catholic blogosphere that Pope Francis recently bowed to Queen Rania of Jordan.

Is this yet another stunning break with tradition on the part of Pope Francis?

Has he overturned 2,000 years of tradition?

Is this one of the signs of the apocalypse?

Is it no big deal?

Let's look at the question . . .


According to the Telegraph

At the root of the current gbuzz is a story published by the British newspaper/website The Tablet.

It has the provocative headline:

Pope breaks with protocol by bowing to Queen Rania of Jordan

And it immediately says:

The Pope has broken yet another point of Vatican protocol by bowing when he met Queen Rania of Jordan.

You can see how they're fitting this into the pre-existing narrative of Francis-the-iconoclast ("broken yet another point").

It goes on to say:

As head of state at the Vatican, not to mention the leader of the world's 1.2 billion catholics, protocol requires visitors to bow to him when they meet him at the Holy See.

But Francis, who has made the forgetting of formalities a trademark of his papacy, bowed when he met a smiling Rania as she visited the Vatican with her husband King Abdullah II on Thursday.

Okay, wait.

The first paragraph tells us that other people are supposed to bow to him. It doesn't say anything about whether popes ever bow back.

One might suppose that they wouldn't, at least historically . . .

"Up until the 19th century visitors would kiss the pope's shoes, and the tradition is still that all visitors, women included, bow to him, but Francis behaves as he did before he became pope and is not interested in protocol," a senior Vatican official told The Daily Telegraph.

Great. Now we have an unnamed Vatican official involved. Off-the-cuff remarks from them are always helpful in sorting out a news story. (Sigh.)

The bit about kissing the pope's shoes "up until the 19th century" is interesting, but where does it say that popes don't ever bow to people these days?


A Matter of Law?

There are established protocols for what people meeting the pope are supposed to do.

But where, specifically, are the documents telling the pope what he is supposed to do?

It's not in canon law.

I'm pretty sure there aren't any apostolic constitutions or motu proprio that one pope has written to bind his successors in matters of protocol. 

Further, as each pope is the supreme legislator of the Church during his time in office, one pope cannot bind another on matters of merely ecclesiastical law.

I very much doubt that there are any documents telling the pope what he must or must not do when greeing people.


Organic Development

I suspect, instead, that his master of ceremonies or a similar official simply tells him, shortly after his election, what the usual practice has been among recent popes, but he's then absolutely free (per his petrine authority) to do what he sees fit.

As a result, the practice develops organically over time--the same way other matters of papal comportment do--as different popes leave their stamp on how things are done.

For example, popes didn't always wear white. That innovation is often credited to Pius V, who is said to have wished to keep wearing his white Dominican garb.

Or then there's John II, who introduced the custom of popes taking new names upon their election (though it still took 500 years for this to become the norm).


Reform in Continuity

Pope Benedict XVI stressed a hermeneutic of "reform in continuity," which he related to matters as weighty as the Church's doctrine.

But the same principle applies as well to much lesser matters, such as whether popes take new names, what colors they wear, and whether they ever bow to people they meet.

Yes, as the Vicar of Christ, there should be special marks that set the popes apart from other men in view of their exalted office as the "servant(s) of the servants of Christ."

No, these distinctives should not be all cast aside or changed in a single moment. That would be a harmful shock to the faithful and send the wrong message--one that would emphasize reform at the expense of continuity.

But neither should any change in papal comportment be viewed as improper or imprudent. That would emphasize continuity at the expense of reform.

The fact is that the Church needs to both preserve and modify lower-case traditions, and it's up to each pope to judge what should be kept as it was and what should be changed in these matters.


An Informal Age

We also are living in a less formal age.

Think about that shoe-kissing thing.

I'm sure it played a useful role a few hundred years ago, but would that really help the cause of evangelization if the pope required people to kiss his shoes today and we were seeing it on CNN?

Can you imagine what the anti-Catholic media would do with that?

One might wish we were living in a more formal age, but we're not, and that's a fact each pope has to face when deciding the best way to evangelize in the current environment.


Who Decides?

It's understandable that, in an age in which the Church has undergone dramatic change (as it has in the last century), some may wonder about particular changes to papal comportment and whether they are really needed.

Other people may find these changes appropriate and helpful.

The flip side is also true: Some may appreciate various retrievals of the Church's lower-case tradition and others may not.

I'll confess up front, I was very appreciative of Pope Benedict's retrievals.

But I'm not going to be alarmed if Pope Francis has a different style.

Each pope always has a different style.

And it's his job, precisely as pope, to decide how he feels he should comport himself in his own day and age.

But the bottom line is: It's not our place to judge.


Greeting, Gesture, and Posture

How people greet each other varies from culture to culture and from time to time.

Some greetings are verbal, but they are often accompanied by a gesture or a change in posture.

What that change is varies. Some times it involves a handshake, a bow of the head, a bow of the body, a wave, a kiss (e.g., "the kiss of peace"), a hug, etc.

Back when people kissed the pope's shoes, I'm pretty sure he didn't give them a handshake.

But these things change with time, and now it's quite common for the pope to shake peoples' hands.

All of these are matters of custom, and the change from one to another is not a big deal.

Today in America, it can be reflexive to bow at least the head and even give a slight bow of the body to someone, particularly before a handshake.

If there is a difference in height, a bow may be necessary in order to do a handshake, and it is often positively required for a man to do a bow of the body in order to kiss a woman's hand (not that that's common these days).

I can easily imagine Pope Francis bowing without even thinking about it.

In fact, he may be bowing in order to kiss Queen Rania's hand in that photo, for all I know.


Questioning the Premise

Everything I've said up to this point has been granting the premise that Pope Francis has done something unprecedented by bowing.

That's a safe assumption, since reporters for mainstream media outlets like The Telegraph are always extremely well-informed on religious matters, and thus this one was quick to recognize the truly unprecedented nature of what Pope Francis did.

He's not just trying to gin up a story by inflating the significance of this and treating it as a novelty, when, in fact, it's happened before.

Oh, wait.

Well, er, at least Pope Benedict never bowed when meeting anybody.


Well, surely this was a novelty, not something that had been done by prior popes.


Oh, well, surely this doesn't go back any farther than that.

But surely this never happened before the popes of the Vatican II era, right?

I haven't done enough photo research to say for sure, but I can say that something even more dramatic happened with a pope and a head of state:

Toward the end of the year 800, Pope Leo III asked Charlemagne to come to Rome. On Christmas Day Charlemagne attended mass at St. Peters. When he finished his prayers, Pope [Saint] Leo prostrated himself before Charlemagne and then placed a crown upon his head. Pope Leo then said "life and victory to Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peaceful emperor of the Romans." This was an extremely important act. Charlemagne became the first emperor in the west since the last Roman emperor was deposed in 476 [SOURCE].

Thanks to the FB friend who pointed this out!


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Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)