Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In a 2008 article about the “Pope’s Processional Cross,” you mentioned the Fisherman’s Ring. When I was young, I remember my father telling me that the Fisherman’s Ring is the same ring that St. Peter wore and that is why it is called the Fisherman’s Ring. Did the pope’s ring actually belong to St. Peter, or is a new ring given to each new pope? – R.W., Evansville, Indiana
A: Unfortunately our reader’s father was misinformed regarding the survival of any ring that St. Peter might have worn.
Apart from some of his bones, Rome does claim to conserve some physical items connected to the first pope. For example, a chair he is supposed to have used is kept within Bernini’s “Altar of the chair” in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica. Also, some chains from his time in prison are kept in the church of St. Peter in Chains. And the actual dungeon of the Mamertine prison that held him and St. Paul is now also a church. Part of a table upon which St. Peter would have celebrated the Eucharist is found in a side chapel of the church of St. Pudenziana, one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Rome (built between A.D. 140 and 155 on the site of a house church). The rest of the table is embedded into the altar of St. John Lateran, Rome’s cathedral. However, there is no mention of St. Peter’s ring.
The pope’s ring probably arose along with the practice of episcopal rings in general. There is evidence of the use of episcopal rings from about the year 610. It is often coupled with the crozier as a symbol of the episcopal office and was often seen as symbolizing a bishop’s mystical betrothal to his diocese. Thus, over the centuries, a ceremony for handing the ring to a newly consecrated bishop became a fixed part of episcopal ordination.
Perhaps for this matrimonial symbol, as well as for practical liturgical reasons, it became customary to wear the ring on the fourth – or ring – finger. Since these rings were often worn over episcopal gloves, they were also quite large or were endowed with a locking mechanism so as to adjust them.
Historically the episcopal ring has usually been a quite large gold ring set with an amethyst. In more recent times the rings have tended to be simpler, having some Christian symbol engraved on the ring. Some bishops use only one while others conserve the more elaborate ring for use during solemn liturgical celebrations.
New cardinals also receive a ring from the pope, who decides on the design to be used in each case.
The pope’s ring is therefore basically an episcopal ring with symbols that reflect the specific office of the papacy. It usually has a representation of St. Peter casting his nets, hence the name: “Ring of the Fisherman,” and the chosen name of the pontiff.
A new ring is made for each pope. During a period of history beginning around 1250 the ring was used to seal private papal documents and from about 1400 public papal letters or briefs. This practice ceased in 1842 but was the cause of the custom of destroying the Fisherman’s Ring at the pope’s death so as to prevent misuse. This custom still exists but is no longer done with a hammer; rather, the ring is simply defaced by making a cross with a chisel.
Each pope uses the Fisherman’s Ring according to his own criteria. Most popes have not used it daily. Some, such as Pius XII, never wore his after the conclusion of his coronation ceremonies, and this practice was followed by his successors, including St. John Paul II. These popes either used a daily ring from a predecessor or one that they had already used as bishop.
Benedict XVI opted to wear his Fisherman’s Ring on a daily basis. Pope Francis has mostly returned to the earlier custom of using a personal ring on a daily basis, although he has used a different ring for some liturgical celebrations. His Fisherman’s Ring was originally designed for use by Paul VI but was never before cast into metal.
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