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'Ring of the Fisherman'

4/16/2005 - 4:00 AM PST

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The Ring of the Fisherman or Pescatorio is an official part of the regalia worn by the pope, described by the Roman Catholic Church as the successor of Saint Peter, a fisherman by trade. The Fisherman's Ring is a signet used until 1842 to seal all official documents to be signed by the pope.

A new ring is cast in gold for each pontiff; the ring features a bas-relief of Saint Peter fishing from a boat. Raised lettering around the relief image presents the pope's Latin name. During the rite of installation and coronation the cardinal camerlengo ceremonially slips the ring on the left ring finger of the new pope. Upon a papal death, the Ring of the Fisherman is ceremonially crushed in the presence of other cardinals by the cardinal camerlengo, using a silver hammer. The action is needed to prevent the sealing of backdated, forged documents during the interregnum sede vacante period.

A letter written by Pope Clement IV to his nephew Peter Grossi in 1256 includes the earliest known mention of the Ring of the Fisherman, used for sealing all private correspondence by pressing the ring into red sealing wax melted onto a folded piece of paper or envelope. Public documents, by contrast, were sealed by pressing the Papal seal into lead melted on the document. Such documents were historically called papal bulls, named after the stamped bulla of lead. Use of the Ring of the Fisherman changed during the fifteenth century when it was used to seal official documents called papal briefs. That practice ended in 1842, when the wax with its guard of silk and the impression of the fisherman's ring was replaced by a stamp which affixed the same devices in red ink.

Through the centuries, the Ring of the Fisherman did not become known for its practical use but by its feudal symbolism. Borrowing from the traditions developed by medieval monarchs, followers showed respect to the reigning pope by kneeling at his feet and kissing the Ring of the Fisherman. The tradition continues to this day.

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Keywords

Pope, Conclave, Rome, Vatican, Ring, John Paul

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