Pope Francis clarified one church-related mystery on Thursday, explaining that it was a fear of spreading germs that provoked him to yank his hand away from the lips of devoted worshippers as they bent down to kiss the papal ring earlier this week.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti told reporters on Thursday that the pope did not intend to buck centuries of tradition, but was interested in preventing disease.
“The Holy Father told me that the motivation was very simple: hygiene,” Gisotti said after speaking directly with Pope Francis about the matter. “He wants to avoid the risk of contagion for the people, not for him.”
Footage of the surprising incident went viral this week, igniting heated debate about what it meant.
The first ten minutes of the full video, shows priests and religious officials kissing the pope’s ring after a service on Monday in Loreto, Italy. But Gisotti said Francis became concerned about the unsanitary practice when long lines of lay churchgoers lined up to greet him.
In general, he added, the pope “likes to embrace people and be embraced by people,” and that he was happy to let people kiss his papal ring in small groups as he was seen doing on Wednesday.
The papal ring is one of the most powerful symbols of the pontiff’s authority. It is worn on the right hand, and kissing it as a sign of obedience and respect. It is a tradition dating back hundreds of years.