Shattered ring | Inquirer Opinion

Shattered ring

/ 10:17 PM February 18, 2013

“It will be ‘terminated,’” Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi, SJ, told reporters. Just what will be ended?

The Annulus Piscatoris otherwise known as the “Ring of the Fisherman.” It depicts a bas-relief of Peter fishing from a boat.  Pope Clement IV first mentioned this signet in a 1265 letter. And popes used it to seal official documents until 1842.


A pope’s ring is shattered on his death—or resignation. In the presence of other cardinals, the camerlengo or  temporary  administrator slips the ring from the deceased pontiff’s finger, then smashes it to bits.

The papal household prefect verifies a pontiff’s death through an ancient process. “As late as 1903, at the death of Leo XIII, this verification was ritually done by tapping the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer,” Thomas Reese writes in the Jesuit weekly America. “It may also have been done with John XXIII, but not with Paul VI or John Paul I or II.”


He calls out the pope’s name. “Joannes Paulus.” When there is no answer to the third call, he signs the death certificate. He notifies other cardinals, plus ambassadors to the Holy See and  heads of nations. But press bulletins, Internet, Twitter, Facebook and blogs will race ahead of the signed notice. In 2005, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri short-circuited the process by simply announcing the pope’s death to the people praying in St. Peter’s Square.

The camerlengo then seals the pope’s private papers and apartment. He is answerable only to the next pope. (In 2005,  John Paul’s private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, ignored John Paul II’s instructions and didn’t incinerate his personal papers.) No autopsy is performed.

How will this be done when Benedict XVI steps down Feb. 28?

The basic rules are in place. John Paul II distilled centuries of traditional practices into the 1996 constitution—Universi Dominici Gregis  (Of the Lord’s Whole Flock). They were modified by Benedict in 2007.

Those rules stipulate that between 15 and 20 days must pass before the conclave meets. But there’s an exception: When majority of cardinal electors agree to advance the starting date of the conclave. Today, 117 cardinals are qualified to vote—or have a new “Ring of the Fisherman” slipped into his finger.

The roster includes Manila’s Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle. Will it be Pope Chito, many sigh. “As the youngest cardinal, my job was to close the conclave’s door,” the late Jaime Cardinal Sin recalled.

Twenty-eight of the 61 cardinals are European. Nineteen come from South America and 14 from North America; Asia and Africa have 14 each. There is one from Oceania. This shifting pattern away from Italians is credited largely to John Paul II and Benedict. A consensus to advance the conclave’s start is jelling, press dispatches indicate.


The 2013 conclave opens against the context of the 1415 papal resignation, when Gregory XI shucked off his Annulus Piscatoris. Over the last 598 years, every pontiff died with his ring on.

“What (will be done) with the papal ring used to seal important documents, traditionally destroyed upon a pope’s death?” New York Times asks. Where will he lodge? Then, there are protocol issues. How is the former pope to be addressed?

No, he can’t be called Benedict or “Your Holiness.” “He is referred to as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, bishop emeritus of Rome,” Church scholars note. “He puts aside his white cassock. And since, he is over 80, he cannot attend the conclave.”

“Habemus Papam” is the announcement given, from St. Peter’s Basicila, upon election of a new pope. “We have a Pope,” the ancient formula reads, and proceeds: “The most eminent and most reverend (first name) Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church (last name), who takes for himself the name of (new papal name).”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, bishop emeritus of Rome, joins retired cardinals like Ricardo Vidal of Cebu and Gaudencio Rosales of Manila, if in Rome. Ratzinger, who was the 266th pope, will kiss the Annulus Piscatoris of the 267th pope since Peter.

Vatican sources said three concerns were factored into the decision that Benedict retire to a Vatican convent: (a) Vatican police will guarantee his privacy and security; (b) seclusion in a monastery—in Germany, for example—would spur visitors; and (c) a pope’s potential exposure to legal claims over sexual abuse scandals.

The 1929 Lateran Pacts between Italy and the Holy See established Vatican City as a sovereign state. It provides that Vatican City would be “invariably and in every event considered as neutral and inviolable territory.”

Other issues remain to be sorted out. Cardinal Ratzinger has a right to speak and write. He probably prefers “to sit in his library reading theology books,” note observers. In practice, anything he says or writes will be examined by media to see if it conflicts with anything the new pope says.

“It’s unheard of. It gives the impression that Benedict will be keeping an eye on his successor,” Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the new Pope and people around him. It’s opened up a can of worms.”

In his final Ash Wednesday homily as pontiff, Benedict sent  a message to the conclave: “Each Christian is called to bear witness to the faith. Move beyond rivalries as a sign for those’ve drifted from the faith or are indifferent.”

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TAGS: Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope’s Ring, Religion
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