Pope Francis kneels to kiss feet of the President of South Sudan Salva Kiir at the end of a two day Spiritual retreat with South Sudan leaders at the Vatican, April 11, 2019.

What’s all this about kissing?

News items have recently featured accounts of Papal osculations or non- osculations. Videos have appeared of Francis refusing pilgrims to kiss his ring, and of him kissing the feet – more properly the shoes – of visiting Sudanese diplomats.

In each instance, what did Francis think he was doing? The ring incident was later passed off as a mere hygienic precaution. This was obviously absurd in a country where kissing is ubiquitous, and not banned by medical authority.  So what was the real reason? No official announcement from the Vatican has been made outlawing the time-honoured custom, so we are left with a question.

Then there was the kissing of shoes (certainly not hygienic). Commentators have likened the incident to an act of Jesus at the Last Supper. But that is to confuse liturgy with scripture – the 13th chapter of St John makes no reference to kissing. And the liturgical action needs context and number to make it intelligible. A random group of men, apparently unprepared for the event, does not make for an intelligible sign.

As with so much else in this pontificate, the kissing (and paradoxically, the not-kissing) are related more to Francis than to symbolism. No Alter Christus or other-Francis of Assisi here. He was – very adeptly – drawing attention to himself.

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