Hongi-ing the Holy Father: The Kiwi who taught Pope Francis the traditional Maori greeting

A Kiwi researcher rubbed shoulders - and noses - with the Pope during a recent trip to Rome for a conference on Huntington's disease.

Dr Melanie Cheung is a researcher at Auckland University who is focused on the treatment of Huntington's disease and when she was recently invited to Rome to represent indigenous communities at the event, she couldn't say no.

The Pope held an audience with about 150 people with Huntington's and their caregivers in a bid remove the stigma surrounding the incurable disease - he met each of them one by one.

Melanie said she was not expecting to be greeted by the Pope, but was humbled and surprised to be given the opportunity.

Dr Melanie Cheung meets Pope Francis in Rome with a hongi. Source: Supplied

When he arrived in front of her she said "I'm Maori and this is how we say hello - so I thought a hongi would be the perfect way to greet him."

Huntington's disease is defined by the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand as an inherited brain disorder that causes cells in specific parts of the brain to die, resulting in impairment of both mental capability and physical control. 

The meeting took place on May 18 in the Paul VI Audience Hall, which lies partially in Vatican territory and partially in Italian Rome.