If you want to kiss Pope Francis’s ring, you might want to have a bottle of Purell handy.
The pope recently created a stir when he pulled his hand away as people in the Italian town of Lareto lined up to kiss his ring – a tradition that goes back centuries, and symbolizes respect.
The video of the pope’s apparent recoiling of would-be ring-kissers went viral, generating accusations of being disrespectful to tradition.
Catholic Sat tweeted: "Pope Francis really doesn’t want anyone kissing his ring,” and followed up with “Whatever the Pope's reason for doing this, surely the pastoral thing to do is just allow the faithful who wish to kiss the Piscatory ring to do so.”
In response, Pope Francis on Thursday sought to defend the move as being in the best interest of public health.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said Thursday that the pontiff pulled his hand away out of concern about spreading germs.
Gisotti said Thursday he had just spoken to the pope about speculation on social media that he was disrespecting the ring-kissing tradition, 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."
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 Wednesday when a handful of people were lined up at the end of his general audience to greet him.
Several bent down to kiss his ring, and Francis patiently allowed it.
"You all know that he has a great joy in meeting and embracing people, and being embraced by them," Gisotti said.
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.
Every pope wears a ring unique to him. Francis' ring is made of gold-plated silver.
Francis has been ambivalent about ring-kissing since his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires, according to American Magazine.
And when he was chosen pope, he tried to pull his hand away when cardinals approached him to kiss the ring or his hand to show obedience.
Pope Benedict XVI was no fan of the practice, either, the magazine noted, and moved to officially end the tradition, though it continued.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.