The Fisherman’s Ring: Annulus Piscatoris

-please click on the image for greater detail.  The more massive ring inset in the image is a historical ring for purposes of comparison with today’s style.

-Annulus Piscatoris of Pope Paul II (1417-1471), historically a ring for the bare hand was made, and more massive ones like the one above to fit over the Papal gloves during formal occasions.

The Piscatory Ring, or the Ring of the Fisherman, is first mentioned in a letter written by Pope Clement IV to his nephew Pietro Grossi in 1265. The Ring of the Fisherman was used for sealing all the pope’s private correspondence. Public documents, by contrast, were sealed by stamping a different papal seal onto lead which was attached to the document. Such documents were historically called papal bulls, named after the stamped bulla of lead. In that time, seals helped to verify that private documents had not been tampered with or opened in transit. With modern means of communication, this practice of sealing a document with wax and then pressing the signet into the wax has fallen out of use.

-a modern bulla attached by yellow cord to the Apostolic constitution Magni aestimamus issued by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.

-Annulus Piscatoris of Pope St John Paul II, originally a crucifix belonging to Pope Paul VI, John Paul II had it shaped into a ring as a sign of continuity.

In keeping with this original and rather practical purpose, the ring of the fisherman was traditionally destroyed with a special hammer after the death of a pope. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had his papal disfigured so it could not be used as a seal anymore, to signify the end of his papacy, even though it is merely traditional and not used as a practical seal any longer.

According to the rules governing the interregnum and election of a pope, the College of Cardinals must “arrange for the destruction of the fisherman’s ring and of the lead seal with which apostolic letters are dispatched.” [From the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominis Gregis]

On March 6, 2013, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters that this “destruction” had been completed, although he explained that the ring is not smashed or destroyed completely; rather, two deep cuts are made in its face so that it can no longer be used as a seal.

Retired Pope Benedict received the ring at his inauguration Mass along with his pallium, the woolen stole symbolizing a bishop’s authority. Both are based on ancient designs.

-Annulus Piscatoris of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, it has Pope Benedict’s name etched on it and a scene of St. Peter casting out his net, symbolizing how popes are successors of the Apostle Peter.

-Annulus Piscatoris of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878)

-Annulus Piscatoris of Pope Francis, compared to older rings, is made of gold-plated silver. It was made from the wax cast of a ring supposedly made for Pope St Paul VI (1897-1978) but was never created. The former personal secretary of Pope Paul VI kept the wax cast and gave it to Monsignor Ettore Malnati, who later on made the ring that was offered to Pope Francis.

Traditionally, upon the pope’s death, in the presence of other cardinals, the ring would be smashed with a ceremonial silver hammer.

After doctors have clinically confirmed the Pope’s death, traditionally, to be sure ceremonially the Pope is dead, the corpus is tapped three times on the forehead with this hammer along with calling out his Christian (first) name three times to be sure he is not just sleeping. This comes from a time long before our current knowledge of brain death.  Then the ring and the papal seal are smashed.  The papal apartments in the Vatican and Castelgondolfo are sealed to ensure no documents in process at the time of the Pope’s death are disturbed or published during the interregnum. At the inauguration of the next pope, a new ring would be presented to the new pope.


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