Video of Pope Francis pulling his hand away from well-wishers hoping to kiss his ring went viral recently, and that’s kind of what the pontiff was worried about. Viruses and germs, that is.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti told the Associated Press that Francis was concerned about hygiene when, after greeting dozens of well-wishers in a lengthy receiving line in Loreto, he began pulling his hand away to discourage people from kissing his ring.
Video of the incident went viral, with conservative critics blasting what they said was Francis’ “graceless” disrespect for the tradition and the faithful who wanted to honor it.
Gisotti said he had just spoken to the pope about it, and Francis replied that it was nothing of the sort. “The Holy Father told me that the motivation was very simple: hygiene,” Gisotti told reporters. “He wants to avoid the risk of contagion for the people, not for him.”
The tradition of kissing the ring of a bishop or pope goes back centuries, as a sign of respect and obedience.
Gisotti noted that Francis is more than happy to receive the ring-kiss in small groups, where the spread of germs is more contained, as he did the day before when a handful of people were lined up at the end of his general audience to greet him.
Francis is known for gleefully embracing babies given to him to kiss and—germs be damned—sipping from mate gourds offered to him by strangers when he’s out and about on his popemobile.