Pope Francis says ring-kiss recoil was a 'simple question of hygiene'

Pope Francis has set the record straight as to why he pulled his hand away from worshippers eager to kiss his ring, saying the reason was "very simple: hygiene".

After greeting a long line of faithfuls at the Holy House of Loreto, an Italian pilgrimage site, the Pope reportedly started feeling concerned about the spread of germs.

Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti explained the bizarre footage, saying the Pope was concerned about hygiene when he began pulling his hand away to discourage people from kissing his ring.

"The Holy Father told me that the motivation was very simple: hygiene," Gisotti said to reporters, adding: "He wants to avoid the risk of contagion for the people, not for him."

Most worshippers tried and failed to snatch a kiss of the ring. Credit: AP

The tradition of kissing the ring of a bishop or pope goes back centuries, as a sign of respect and obedience and some Catholics claimed the Pope's reaction was "graceless" disrespect for tradition.

Gisotti said the Pope is more than happy to receive the ring-kiss in small groups, where the spread of germs is more contained.

"You all know that he has a great joy in meeting and embracing people, and being embraced by them," Gisotti added.

The Pope allowed chairman of the Bosnian tripartite presidency, Dragan Covic, to kiss his ring. Credit: AP

The papal ring, also known as the Ring of the Fisherman, is entrenched in Catholic tradition and is subject to some unusual protocol.

When a Pope is selected, he receives an individual ring with his own name engraved on it and until 1842 the signet was used as a seal to certify important documents.

When a Pope dies, the ring is immediately destroyed to ensure that during the selection of a new Pope, nobody tries to falsify official documents.