News & Politics

What to Do If You Get to Meet the Pope

Pope Francis arriving in Washington Tuesday. (Photograph by Andrew Propp.)

Pope Francis is here in DC, and tens of thousands of residents and visitors are expected to gather at his planned stops in the nation’s capital. So, yes, it’s unlikely that you and the pontiff will lay out a picnic together at Meridian Hill Park or bond over bottomless brunch. But who knows? Maybe you’ll get a handshake.

Just in case, Washingtonian compiled a few tips on papal protocol. We consulted Rev. Kevin O’Brien, vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown University, and Nancy Mitchell, protocol expert and founding partner of Protocol Partners-Washington Center for Protocol.

Who should make the first move?

A handshake is perfectly fine. If you’re a Catholic, it’s tradition to take the pope’s hand with your right hand and kiss his fisherman’s ring on bended knee. But Pope Francis has dispensed with much of the pomp and circumstance of past papacies. When he landed at Joint Base Andrews on Tuesday, he shook hands with President Obama and the cardinals who greeted him. “He receives people as they come to him,” Rev. O’Brien says.

How should I address him?

You should address him as Your Holiness, Most Holy Father, or simply, Holy Father. And don’t worry about language. Pope Francis is fluent in Italian, German, and Spanish and speaks a touch of English, Portuguese, and French, according to the Telegraph. Plus, he often has a translator nearby.

How should I dress?

Don’t wear white. If you have a private audience with the pope, Mitchell says, the only people who can wear white are heads of state who are also members of the royal family. (According to this protocol, Prince William and Kate Middleton could wear white, but President Obama and the First Lady would have to choose another shade.) Women should wear a dress with a skirt that falls below the knee, or a pantsuit, and shoulders should be covered. Men should wear dark suits. In public, Mitchell says, you can relax. Just try to avoid tank tops, miniskirts, shorts, and sandals.

Can I take a selfie with him?

Leave your selfie stick at home, but bring your camera. Pope Francis has been known to smile for selfies.

Should I make any jokes?

“Apparently he likes a good laugh and he tells jokes and he smiles a lot, so I’m sure he appreciates a good sense of humor,” says Rev. O’Brien, who was too nervous to crack a joke when he met Pope Francis in Rome in 2013.

But you must tread carefully with humor, says Mitchell. Cultural nuances can be lost in translation. Stay away from jokes that poke fun at priests, nuns, or celibacy. Choose one that can’t be misinterpreted, such as: “If you don’t like our weather, wait 15 minutes and it changes.”

Will he trade caps with me?

Pope Francis is known for swapping his skullcap, or zucchetto. According to CNN, when a crowd member waves the small white cap at him, the Pontiff will often halt his popemobile and try it on for size. If it fits, he trades. Either way, you end up with a cap that has touched the Pontiff’s head. Such fortunate zucchettos have sold for more than $900 on eBay.

Any other advice?

“[Pope Francis] makes you feel as if you’re the only person in the world at that moment,” Rev. O’Brien says. “Speak from the heart, and in return you will hear good word and receive a warm smile from him. I think that encounter will be something that you won’t forget.”

Talia Mindich
Editorial Fellow