I won’t go into all the plate-shattering and foot-stomping that’s been going on over the pope’s simple gesture a few weeks back. You don’t have to look far to find what people think of it.
But I was curious to find out a little of the history behind this act. And one of the first resources that popped up in my Googling was Fr. Z. He answered a question on the topic a couple years back, when someone wondered about the appropriateness of kissing the hand of a priest:
The whole hand kissing, or baciamano “thing” is an old custom which shows respect for the priest as mediator. It actually shows respect more for what we receive from the priest, rather than for the priest himself. (Emphasis mine.)
I don’t know any priests who expect that people should kiss their hands. It may be that there are a few out there, but I haven’t met them. I sure don’t expect it, but I accept it as graciously as possible when it occurs. It is sometimes a bit of a surprise.
While I can’t recall a parishioner kissing my hand, I’ve had something similar happen to me, usually from Filipinos: someone will greet me after Mass and touch my hand to his or her forehead. It always startles me—I suspect they think I’m a priest—but I’ve gotten used to it. Sort of.
Over at Wikipedia, they offer this background:
Hand-kissing is a gesture indicating courtesy, politeness, respect, admiration or even devotion by a man towards a woman, by a vassal towards their master or a child towards their parent or grandparent. (N.B.: It strikes me that many of those people whose hands Pope Francis kisses are older than he is. This could be—among other things—a courtly gesture of generational respect.)Hand-kissing has become rare and is mostly restricted to the conservative upper class or diplomats.
…In the Catholic Church, it is also traditional for the laity to kiss the hands of a newly-ordained priest after his inaugural mass, in veneration of the Body of Christ, which is held in the priest’s hands during the Holy Eucharist.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, Macedonian Orthodox Church, and Montenegrin Orthodox Church, it is appropriate and common for laity to greet clergy, whether priests or bishops, by making a profound bow and saying, “Father, bless” (to a priest) or “Master, bless” (to a bishop) while placing their right hand, palm up, in front of their bodies. The priest then blesses them with the sign of the cross and then places his hand in theirs, offering the opportunity to kiss his hand. Orthodox Christians kiss their priest’s hands not only to honor their spiritual father confessor, but in veneration of the Body of Christ which the priest handles during the Divine Liturgy as he prepares Holy Communion.
People will debate, endlessly, what the pope is up to with gestures like this. But it helps to know where all this comes from.