I was somewhat disturbed with what I saw in youtube. It was a video of the Pope seemingly snubbed by the German bishops who refused to shake his hand. At first glance it appears distressing, somehow foreshadowing division within the church.  Others interpreted it as a secret revolt of those bishops who were not at ease with Pope Benedict XVI’s politics and governance, among those factors mentioned were the Motu Propio Summorum Pontificium which eased the usage of the Tridentine Mass, the lifting of the excommunication of the four SSPX bishops, and the reopening of the dialogue with the SSPX which accordingly, merited the ire of liberal European bishops.

Another hearsay equally annoying was the issue of the Pope’s defenestration – that God had publicly removed the Pope’s authority on the occasion of the World Youth Day 2011 when a strong wind had blown Pope Benedict’s zucchetto off his head – the symbol of his authority. This among others was interpreted as stripping off of power which gained its climax with the video allegedly showing German bishops in utter disrespect of the Pope.

But is this really the case? I made my research into this issue and I found the opposite. Looking closely at the bishops who were lined up there, the first one who did not shake hand with the Pope was no less than Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone – the Vatican Secretary of State who was personally handpicked by the Pope. It would be most unlikely that Cardinal Bertone would intend to insult the Pope. He was his known loyalist. So what really happened? Pope Benedict was following protocol when he extended his hand to introduce his entourage (the same bishops who supposedly snubbed him) to the German President Christian Wulff although the Pope appeared to lag behind him. He wasn’t reaching for a handshake from members of his own entourage who travelled with him. Others though may have extended their courtesy and shook the Pope’s hand but it was never required. They were with the Pope all along their travel and could very well have ample of time to shake hands with him. Besides, bishops do not shake hands with the Pope; they kiss his ring as a gesture of respect. Moreover, the men who didn’t shake hands with the Pope are known friends and collaborators. For example, Cardinal Brandmueller, a good friend of the Pope, and Bishop Josef Clemens, the Pope’s former personal secretary and now Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Among those who did shake hands although it was not necessary anymore were Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, President of the German Bishops’ Conference and Archbishop Rainer Woelki of Berlin, the only two German bishops who were included in the Pope’s entourage when he arrived in Berlin but did not travel with him on the plane.

So things are not always what they seem at first glance. According to Father Federico Lombardi, S.J – the Vatican spokesman who commented on this matter when it reached the net, “I have nothing else to add. An interpretation of the video that accuses the German bishops of disrespecting the Pope is too senseless to warrant further comment.”



  1. My experience with lrgiitucal theology and practice has been very much ecumenical: as an Anglican/Episcopalian, I studied various Roman Catholic authors (conservative and progressive, thank you very much), read the documents of Vatican II, etc., etc. I say this to preface my reflection on Thompson’s article.When as a seminarian I did my practicum in lrgiitucal presidency (which involved practice masses as both east and west facing altars), I was frequently blasted by my mentor for looking upward, above the heads of the assembly at the west facing altar. Haven’t you read the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy? he asked repeatedly. Christ is out there [pointing at the congregation] just as much as he’s up there. No need to look away from the assembly to find Jesus Christ. That much, at least, the Council fathers made clear. This, from an Anglican!I carry the memory of that rebuke with me whenever I celebrate at an altar facing the people. Although I usually fix my eyes on the book during the canon proper, I have learned to look to the assembly with reverence and devotion as a sign of Christ, crucified and risen. To place a standing crucifix in-between me and them would be superfluous. Further, to place the Crucifix on the center of the altar, in order that all, during the celebration of the liturgy, may concretely face and look upon Lord (Msgr. Marini) for the benefit of the assembly would seem to be an implicit denial (1) of the priest’s role as alter Christus during the lrgiitucal celebration and/or (2) a denial of the presence of Christ in the sacrament itself (after the Eucharistic Prayer). I know and understand that such is not the intent of either Msgr. Marini or of the Bishop of Rome. But whenever the personal piety of certain celebrants seems to trump lrgiitucal practices that are geared to benefit the entire assembly, the risk is run of diminishing the centrality of the sacrament and the sacrality of the community gathered to celebrate, venerate and receive it.

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