Traditional Reverences Offered to the Office of the Vicar of Christ (The Pope)

One of the elements that one sometimes sees popularly depicted in films and the like is the tradition of kissing the pope's foot. Of course in present times such actions are frequently viewed in a negative light even by Catholics and, in view of that, it seemed to be something that might be worth briefly exploring so that people might at least be permitted to make more informed judgements for themselves on the matter.

The origins of this practice come from the desire to give honour, not so much to the man holding the office but rather to Christ and the office of Vicar of Christ itself. Some suggest that this custom originated at least as early as the eighth century when it the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian II, paid such a manner of respect to the pontiff of his own time, Pope Constantine (664-715).  The fact it was an emperor who offered this honour to a pontiff certainly could be understood as indicative of the fact the honour is intended as one of the spiritual order, not the temporal. Others suggest that this custom was something that was also afforded to the emperors themselves as well. Regardless, the custom was apparently embedded within a liturgical context within the Gelasian Sacramentary where the rubrics prescribed that the deacon should kiss the foot of the pope prior to his reading of the Gospel. 

It is frequently speculated that the reason the pope's shoes and liturgical sandalia are -- traditionally -- ornamented by a cross on top of the toe of the shoe was precisely related to this reverential custom -- so that the cross might be kissed. It is thought this development came about during the middle ages "to  show  that  the honour  was  done  'not  to  the  mortal [i.e. the person of the pope himself],  but  to  the  Son  of God.'" (Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome, Part IV, pp. 341-2)

In point of fact, the kissing of this cross on the foot of the pontiff was only part of the ceremonial reverences offered to the office of the Vicar of Christ:

In  being  presented  to  the  Pope  three  genuflections are  made,  one  at  the  door  of  his chamber,  another  midway,  and  the  third  before kissing  the  cross  on  his  slipper.  Here  at  his feet  you  remain  kneeling,  unless  he  tells  you  to rise,  and  to  be  seated.  On  leaving,  three  genuflections are  again  made,  and  you  retire  without turning  your  back,  and  consequently  walking backwards.  (Urbs et Orbis: Or the Pope as Bishop and Pontiff, p. 129.)

Evidently, in the current milieu within Western society, such actions are frequently either misinterpreted or maligned, being considered overly monarchical and aristocratic -- and therefore either passé if not outright undesirable.  However, one wonders if this is less the result of a considered view on the origins and symbolic purpose of this act, and more a case of temporal and political ideologies and ideas imposing themselves upon something that had as its purpose the reverence for a spiritual office?

We'll leave it to our readers to have that decide for themselves.

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