Traditionally, when a pope dies, the ring is destroyed. It was at first unclear if Benedict’s ring would be destroyed; there was some talk of placing it in the Vatican Museums. However, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said in late February that the ring would probably be “terminated” in private in the days after the resignation.
“Objects strictly tied to the ministry of St. Peter must be destroyed,” Fr. Lombardi told United Press International on Feb. 12. The ring was to be given to the College of Cardinals to be destroyed.
The new pope will receive a new ring. Since we are in the interim (interregnum) time between popes, there is no ring of the fisherman.
The pope’s ring is, in essence, the same as a bishop’s ring, which every bishop wears. In fact, Benedict will return to wearing his episcopal ring in retirement.
Bishop David Ricken wears a ring that was given to him by Blessed John Paul II when he was ordained to the episcopate on Jan. 6, 2000, at St. Peter’s Basilica. The bishop’s ring shows Jesus in the center, flanked by Peter and Paul. Inside is the late pope’s coat of arms, which was only given to those bishops whom John Paul himself ordained.
The use of a bishop’s ring seems to have developed from the use of ancient signet rings that sealed official documents of kings. Likewise, other temporal rulers and magistrates throughout history have used signet rings to mark their personal documents and authenticate rulings.
However, rings also seal the most permanent of relationships: marriage. As representatives of Christ, who took the church as his bride, the bishop’s ring also symbolizes his union with a particular geographic part of that church. “The Dictionary of Liturgy” states that “the pastoral or episcopal ring is … a mark of (a bishop’s) jurisdiction and dignity. It clearly signifies the spiritual union and alliance contracted by the bishop with his particular church.”
It is the same with the Holy Father — his fisherman’s ring symbolizes his union with his geographic church. In this case, that’s the universal church. So whenever someone kisses the pope’s ring, it is a sign of respect, but is also a sign of affection.
Of course, the papal ring did not originate with Peter. (Yet since we know Peter was married, he probably had a ring.) Nuptial rings were exchanged by couples at betrothals at the time of Christ. A ring was given by the groom and its value had to be known to the bride before she accepted it. This showed she had freely accepted her husband and was not forced into marriage.
The first mention of a “fisherman’s ring” in church records dates to 1265, when Pope Clement IV wrote a letter to his nephew, Peter Grossi, saying that all his personal letters were being sealed with that ring.
Despite this somewhat late reference, bishops’ rings seem to go much farther back in church history. St. Isidore of Seville (in 637) mentioned episcopal rings used “as a seal for secrets.”
While past popes have not worn the fisherman’s ring at all times, Pope-emeritus Benedict chose to do so every day. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, wore a different ring most of the time — a gold band in the shape of a cross. This was his simple ring. Generally, the simple ring of the Bishop of Rome is inexpensive and has often been set with a cameo, about an inch in length. This was the case with Pope John XXIII (d. 1963).
However, some simple rings can be very ornate. For example, “The Church Visible,” an account of church protocol, notes that the ring commonly worn by Pius IX (d. 1878) contained more than 100 diamonds, arranged to form the pope’s face in profile.
Why Benedict XVI chose to wear the heavy fisherman’s ring each day is unknown. However, the retired pope respected tradition and certainly knew the history of the use of bishops’ (and popes’) rings. Also, as a strong defender of traditional marriage, he knew the meaning of both betrothal and wedding rings. He also no doubt knew that the traditional Jewish betrothal ceremony — which Peter and his wife and Joseph and Mary undertook — was sealed with a ring. That ceremony is called kiddushin and means “to be set apart,” as in sanctified, as the couple are for each other.
The Song of Solomon speaks of the love of a man for his beloved: “Set me as a seal on your heart/ as a seal on your arm./ For stern as death is love,/ relentless as the nether world is devotion” (Song 8:6).
The pope emeritus may have been eluding to this at his final Sunday Angelus on Feb. 24 when he said, “this does not mean (I am) abandoning the church, indeed, if God is asking me to do this it is so that I can continue to serve the church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far.”
While the ring is broken, the seal on Benedict’s heart is not. The retired pope still loves the people entrusted to him and looks after them, just in a less visible way.
Maybe that’s what the broken, no longer visible, fisherman’s ring really symbolizes.
Sources: “The Church Visible, The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Catholic Church”; Jewishencyclopedia.org; Torah 101 at mechon-mamre.org; upi.com; “Dictionary of the Liturgy”; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.