The Biggest Mistakes People Make When Meeting The Pope

Meeting the pope is a big deal. This isn't some guy who's just temporarily in charge of a country or is known for being Tom Hanks-levels of nice. This is the pope. The pope. The "Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God," according to the Vatican itself (via NBC Washington).

Before you meet someone that important, you're briefed on the etiquette you are expected to follow. The lists of dos and don'ts, both official and unofficial, is long. But, once again, this is the pope you're meeting. No matter how much you studied that list of rules, chances are you could be so overcome by the moment that you completely forget what you should and shouldn't be doing.

If you bump into His Holiness one day, and make a mistake that will play over and over again in your head until you die, just know you're in very good company. Plenty of people who have met the pope, many who should know better, have made big mistakes too.

Waiting for someone to introduce him

If you are going to meet the pope, you'd probably seek out an etiquette expert to guide you through the process. Maybe even someone more well-versed than that, say, a protocol officer. Maybe one who used to work for the government and has been involved in making sure high-level meetings of important people ran smoothly. In that case, Gary Biggs, a former protocol officer in the Defense Department, knows exactly what he would recommend you do in your first moments in the presence of the pope: "I would wait for someone to introduce him."

If you followed that advice, you'd be waiting a long time. According to Robert Hickey of the Protocol School of Washington, "The Holy Father is so high he is never introduced to anyone: individuals are presented to the Holy Father. He requires no introduction: anyone about to meet the Pope already knows who he is." It makes sense when you think about it. Imagine meeting Brad Pitt, and he holds out his hand and says, "Hi, I'm Brad Pitt." You'd be like, "Yes, I know."

Now imagine the pope introducing himself. Even the most nonbelieving of atheists is probably already going to know who he is. Even if his face doesn't ring a bell, the outfit is a dead giveaway, not to mention the guys in striped pajamas guarding him. Of course he doesn't need an introduction. (And you only refer to the pope as His Holiness or Holy Father, as Biggs also recommends.)

Taking a selfie

For both young people and not so young people today, selfies are part of life. But Pope Francis, one of the most photographed people in the world, is not a fan. According to the National Catholic Reporter, in 2018 he told a meeting of 1,700 church leaders about an interaction he'd had with kids a few days before.

"They were all there waiting for me," Pope Francis said. "When I arrived, they made noise, as young people do. I went to greet them and only a few gave their hand. The majority were with their cellphones (saying), 'photo, photo, photo. Selfie!'" He continued, "I saw that this is their reality, that is the real world, not human contact. And this is serious. They are 'virtualized' youths. The world of virtual communication is a good thing, but when it becomes alienating, it makes you forget to shake hands."

Look, obviously meeting the pope is the pinnacle of "pics or it didn't happen." But these kids were members of a Catholic youth organization the pope had started himself when he was a mere archbishop. You'd think they would have been briefed on what to do when meeting His Holiness and how to show at least a little bit of reverence. Even Gen Z should be aware that you don't react to a pope sighting the same way you do to running into Harry Styles or the members of BTS. At least say hello before shoving your phone in his face.

Kissing the pope's ring

There is nothing even slightly humorous about the act of "kissing the Pope's ring," because everyone knows what it means, and it doesn't mean that. (Cue scene from "The Godfather.")

With that out of the way, author James-Charles Noonan Jr. explained in a 1996 book (via The Washington Post) that "for centuries, the Church has granted an indulgence to Catholics who reverence the ring of the pope, cardinals, and other prelates." Basically, it's a really great thing for a religious person to kiss the pope's ring, and it could even help send you to Catholic Heaven. So obviously, people want to do it. But according to The Washington Post, in 2019, a video went viral that showed Pope Francis pulling his hand away from a "parade" of worshipers who were trying to kiss his ring. How come? A Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, quickly clarified (via NPR), "The Holy Father told me that the motivation was very simple: hygiene. He wants to avoid the risk of contagion for the people, not for him."

While some Catholics called the act of the pope pulling his hand away "disturbing," others say it's just how things are now. A scholar in medieval church history, Christopher Bellitto, thinks kissing the ring is "a leftover that is best left over," and makes clear, "This isn't as much of a Francis story, as much as a story about the modern papacy."

Not following the dress code

Lots of fancy occasions have dress codes, so it's no surprise that meeting the pope involves one as well. The Catholic Church loves a good dress code, whether it's a pointy miter, a nun's habit, or whatever the heck it is the Swiss Guards call their monstrosity of a uniform. And since the pope and most of the people around him have sworn a vow of chastity, of course it's only polite for the men and women who meet him to make sure none of their junk is hanging out, lest they be tempted.

But the dress code goes further than that, and even queens can screw it up. The dresser to England's Elizabeth II revealed (via the Evening Standard) there was almost an "international incident" in 2000, when someone informed the queen she could wear a day dress, when she really needed to follow the rules and wear black. Her dresser, who is Catholic, packed a black dress just in case, which the queen ended up wearing. (When meeting Pope Francis in 2014, she was allowed to wear lilac.)

While black is a must, white is a privilege. Called "privilege du blanc," meaning "the privilege of the white," only queens and princesses from Catholic countries are supposed to wear white when meeting the pope. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, Cherie Blair, and Mexican first lady Angélica Rivera both missed that memo, donning white dresses when meeting Benedict XVI in 2006 and Pope Francis in 2015, respectively.

Going in for a hug

Considering Pope John Paul II was shot by a member of the public who got close to him, it's no surprise that reaching out and grabbing the pope without warning is kind of a no-no. But it seems to be something people forget all the time. According to the Catholic Review (via the Archdiocese of Baltimore), Ingrid Betancourt spent six years as a hostage in Colombia where she found solace in reading the Bible. Pope Benedict XVI publicly appealed for her release, and when she finally got her freedom she was granted an audience with him. It was obviously an overwhelming experience for Betancourt, who admitted, "As soon as I went in, I hugged the pope and maybe I wasn't supposed to do that."

Even those with back stories go in for the hug though. The Detroit News reports that in 2008 during a visit to the United Nations, Pope Benedict stood on a six-inch platform while receiving a line of dignitaries in an attempt to keep him out of their reach. It didn't work. "The first person walked up on the platform and hugged him," says Alice Hecht, then the U.N.'s chief of protocol. Still, that wasn't as bad as during a previous visit, when someone leapt up onto the platform in the U.N. General Assembly for a papal cuddle. Still, Larry Dunham, a former assistant chief of protocol at the State Department, gets it. "I understand that people can be overcome in that kind of situation," he says. "I'd follow his lead."

Leaving the pope waiting

According to Catholic theology, the pope is supposed to have a direct line to God. This is a man who can chat with the supreme deity, getting exclusive insights into life, eternity, and religious doctrine. So when he takes time out of his day to meet with you, a boring normal person with not even a little omnipotence, you best not waste his time. That includes keeping him waiting.

If you have a meeting with the pope, you need to be the first one to show up. But Vladimir Putin is notoriously late to meetings with other world leaders, which, as Delaware Online points out, is basically a power play reflecting how he feels about power. But even he was on time for a 2003 audience with Pope John Paul II. However, this was notable enough that one Russian newspaper ran with the headline, "The President Was Not Even a Second Late." In 2000, Putin had been 15 minutes late to see the same pope. But in 2013, he topped this by arriving almost an hour late to see Pope Francis.

Occasionally, the pope will arrive first as a sign of respect. Pope Benedict XVI did this with President George W. Bush in 2008. The president had picked the pope up at the airport when he came on a visit to the United States, so the pontiff repaid this kindness by arranging to meet Bush at a medieval castle. India Today says Benedict arrived first and waited "several minutes" for the president.

Using the pope for political ends

While you could never argue in good faith that the Catholic Church isn't inherently political, the pope is at least supposed to pretend to be neutral in the messy world of politics. So it is seriously bad form when the pope agrees to meet with you, and you end up using that meeting to promote your own political agenda. Yet politicians can't seem to help themselves.

When Pope Francis was to meet with the civilian leader of Myanmar, the country's military leader changed the schedule at the last minute in order to meet the pope first, making it look like he was more important. And the Guardian reports that Vatican officials let it be known they were not happy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to meet with Pope Francis right before the 2020 election, saying they knew it was for political reasons.

Since Pope Francis is originally from Argentina, his countrymen seem to think he should get involved in a sticky situation with the U.K. When he met the pope, one Argentinian official tricked him into taking a sign saying "It's time for dialogue between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands," according to the South China Morning Post. The pope was photographed holding the sign, and the Argentinian president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who has made clear in the past she thinks the pope should get involved in the Falkland disagreement, retweeted it to her 4 million Twitter followers.

Telling him the truth

You would think a good rule of thumb would be to always tell the pope the truth. It's pretty bad form to lie to any religious leader, let alone the big guy of Catholicism. Not only do the 10 Commandments make clear that lying in general is a no-no, parts of Catholic doctrine, like confession, would be pointless if you didn't tell the truth. (Although, how bad do you have to be if they call in the pope to listen to your confession?)

Still, sometimes, a little white lie is better than telling an uncomfortable truth. Amazingly, this holds true even when it's the pope asking you a question. Think Faith explains how Pope John Paul II visited Chili in 1987, a controversial trip that saw him become the first major world leader to meet with murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The pope spoke to tens of thousands of young Catholics at the country's National Stadium. When he asked them to "renounce the idols of money, power, and greed," the 90,000-strong crowd gave a huge cheer. Sure, many of them probably knew they were going to continue to seek out money and power, but when the pope asks, you know you're supposed to say you would never do such a thing. Then he asked a question that not even the best white liar could handle tactfully: "Do you renounce the idols of sex?" The response was ... silence. Then "a playful, 'No!'" To be fair, the pope should have seen that coming.

Making a slip of the tongue

Meeting the head of your religion would be incredibly stressful for anyone, especially a devout young person. So it's no surprise that sometimes, people's words get jumbled up inside their mouths out of nervousness when talking to the pope. What is bad, though, is when that jumble comes out as an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

The Irish Sun reports that when Pope Francis visited Ireland in 2018, he blessed 500 engaged and married couples in Dublin's Pro Cathedral. Three lucky couples even got to meet him. That's when dairy farmer Denis Nulty — incidentally, the nephew of a bishop — told the pope that he was prepared to commit to "sacrifice of marriage." Of course, he meant to say "sacrament." Talk about Freudian slips. Nulty said afterwards, "It was just the pressure. Nerves. I don't know where the word sacrifice came from. I knew I was going to miss up at some stage though! It was a slip of the tongue."

But Pope Francis, especially, understands how embarrassing mixing up your words at important moments can be, because early on he had a pretty classic mistake of his own. Less than a year into his papacy, while speaking to the faithful in St. Peter's Square, he mixed up the Italian words "caso" and "cazzo." He's not a native Italian speaker, so no big deal? Well, the first one means "example," but the second has various translations, according to NPR, including "a vulgar term for 'penis'" and "f***," all of them inappropriate for a pope.

Expecting him to follow health guidelines

While Pope Francis has proven not to be a huge fan of people slobbering all over his ring, he didn't seem to be as worried about other public health issues. Case in point: the COVID-19 pandemic. While Pope Francis has expressed dislike for former President Donald Trump and his policies in the past, one thing they seemed to agree on was forgoing masks during the pandemic, at least until those around them basically forced a mask on them.

You would think that Pope Francis would be extra careful about contracting an airborne virus that disproportionately kills the elderly, since, according to The Washington Post, in 2020 he was 83 years old and missing part of a lung. The Vatican, as a country where about 600 people live, had rules about masks just like other nations: Namely, everyone was supposed to wear them both inside and out. But Francis just ... didn't. And he had a few close calls, coming in contact with at least three people who later tested positive for COVID-19.

And just like many people in the U.S. were frustrated with Trump for not wearing a mask, Pope Francis' choice was controversial. One Jesuit priest, the Rev. Thomas Reese, wrote to the pontiff. He explained, "You're supposed to follow your own rules. You're the boss. It's very disappointing he's not doing it. I wrote that because I love him, not because I'm one of his opponents," Reese said. "It's tough coming and saying: 'Pope, you're wrong. Put on the mask.'"

Kicking around a soccer ball

Many popes have been big fans of soccer. John Paul II was a pretty good goalie when he was young. Pope Benedict VXI was invited to become an honorary member of his favorite team, Bayern Munich, and Pope Francis is a big supporter of the Argentinian team San Lorenzo de Almagro. But just because he might appreciate the sport, that doesn't mean you should show up at the pope's house and start kicking a soccer ball around.

Pop star Justin Bieber learned this the hard way. Now, to be fair, Bieber didn't actually meet the pope on this occasion. Christian Today says he was rumored to have paid €20,000 euro for a private after-hours tour of the Vatican. This included the museums full of precious, irreplaceable religious artifacts and the pope's personal apartments. (Since Pope Francis is all about the humble life, he doesn't actually live there, but in a communal dorm nearby.)

As CTV News reports, Bieber was definitely at the Vatican and had a soccer ball with him, because he posted a picture of himself holding one in front of the Sistine Chapel. (Or, as he once called it in an interview with David Letterman, the "Sixteenth Chapel.") Not only did the singer break the dress code by wearing shorts and a hat, but allegedly he was kicking the soccer ball around the halls of the hallowed buildings. Obviously, Vatican staff was not thrilled with this disrespect for the pope's home and "scolded" Bieber for his antics.