Controversy erupted this week over a viral video that showed Pope Francis repeatedly pulling his hand away as a line of faithful greeters attempted to kiss his papal ring. Take a look:
The bizarre video left people confused, considering that past videos and photos showed the Pope allowing faithful Catholics to kiss his ring without pushback. According to Vatican officials, Pope Francis simply did not want to spread germs considering the high volume of people that were in line to greet him at the Marian shrine of Loreto on Monday.
"The Holy Father told me that the motivation was very simple: hygiene," Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti told reporters on Thursday, according to LifeSiteNews. "He wants to avoid the risk of contagion for the people, not for him."
Indeed, not only has Pope Francis allowed faithful Catholics to kiss the ring on past occasions — video also showed him allowing priests and other Catholics to kiss his ring for a full ten minutes on Monday, before he decided to yank his hand away. As to why Catholics traditionally kiss the papal ring, LifeSiteNews has more:
A bishop’s ring is a sign of his "marriage" to the diocese over which he rules. The gesture of kissing the episcopal ring (called the baciamano in Italian) is a way of reminding the bishop of his promises to his people and their loyalty to him. It is a reminder of the unbreakable nuptial bond between him and his people, and the affection and loyalty for each other. Clergy and laity who kiss a bishop’s ring therefore remind him of his undertakings when he was consecrated to the episcopate.
The Bishop of Rome’s ring — the "Ring of the Fisherman" — is a sign of his husband-father relation to the Church as a whole and is smashed upon the death of a pope. It is also the symbol of the Pope’s investiture of his office. To kiss the "Ring of the Fisherman" therefore alludes to the dignity and office and is an expression of loyalty to him as the Successor of St. Peter.
Nevertheless, the image of Pope Francis pulling his hand away as Catholics tried to kiss his ring became an international sensation, leading many to speculate whether the gesture was yet another sign of Pope Francis stepping away from tradition. John Allen, editor of the online Catholic news site Crux, said his actions were about dialing "down the tradition of subservience."
Writing at the Jesuit publication America magazine, Eric Sundrup said that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had moments of hesitancy when it came to the laity kissing their papal rings.
"Protocols evolve and changes can be confusing, especially when most people only meet a reigning monarch (or pope) once in their lives," wrote Sundrup. "As we have seen in the past few days, old habits die hard, even when the pope is trying to keep the receiving line moving. So while Pope Francis might not be a fan of hand and ring kissing, he is actually following the lead of John Paul II and Benedict XVI."
Sundrup continued: "Before the Second Vatican Council, it was customary in most countries for both priests and laity to kiss a bishop’s ring upon greeting him as a sign of respect and obedience. But times change, and the gesture can also be seen as furthering clericalism and ties to temporal power."