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Eric Sundrup, S.J.March 26, 2019
Top Left: Ring with the Name of Pope Paul II c. 1464–71 (Met Museum); Illustration by Ciaran Freeman (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

Why do Catholics kiss the pope’s ring? And why doesn’t he want them to?

Protocols evolve and changes can be confusing, especially when most people only meet a reigning monarch (or pope) once in their lives. As we have seen in the past few days, old habits die hard, even when the pope is trying to keep the receiving line moving. So while Pope Francis might not be a fan of hand and ring kissing, he is actually following the lead of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Before the Second Vatican Council, it was customary in most countries for both priests and laity to kiss a bishop’s ring upon greeting him as a sign of respect and obedience. But times change, and the gesture can also be seen as furthering clericalism and ties to temporal power. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before him have tried to discourage the practice when the pope is receiving visitors, and Francis was resistant to the practice when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires as well. According to the journalist Peter Seewald (in his book-length interview The Light of the World), Pope Benedict XVI actually abolished the tradition of kissing the pope’s hand, “though no one followed the new protocol.”

America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, notes that when the cardinals came forward at the conclave that elected Pope Francis to express their obedience to him, he tried to stop them from kissing his hand or ring. He kissed the hands of cardinals from Vietnam and China, as a sign of respect for their witness in the face of religious persecution.

Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before him have tried to discourage the practice of kissing the pope's ring or hand when the pope is receiving visitors.

Much of the reverence shown to the papal rings developed out of the tradition of “the fisherman’s ring” owned by the pope. At least as far back as the 1200s, the signet on the fisherman’s ring was used to seal papal documents. 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.

[Related: Pope Francis explains reluctant ring kiss: Fear of spreading germs]

In keeping with this original and rather practical purpose, the ring of the fisherman was traditionally destroyed after the death of a pope. In the presence of other cardinals, the ring would be smashed with a ceremonial hammer. At the inauguration of the next pope, a new ring would be presented to the new pope.

Similar traditions and ceremonies were quite common in royal courts throughout Europe in the medieval period. Another common practice would have been the kissing of a monarch’s ring as a sign of respect for the office and power held by the monarch. This matches up with the tradition of kissing the pope’s hand and the fisherman’s ring. It also was not limited to the pope: Bishops also receive rings at their episcopal ordinations.

Kissing the pope’s hand isn’t the only monarchical tradition that found its way into papal protocols. A coronation ceremony was part of the installation of a new pope for many centuries.

But a big ring with a signet for sealing documents is a little impractical. Although Pope Benedict XVI had the practice of wearing the fisherman’s ring daily, that has not been the norm for some time. In other words, even when visitors go to kiss the pope’s hand, it most likely does not have the fisherman’s ring on it. Many popes have used a different ring more to their personal style for normal daily life. St. Pope Paul VI, for example, wore a ring day-to-day that commemorated Vatican II. Mr. O'Connell confirms that Pope Francis only wears the fisherman’s ring for certain ceremonies.

Kissing the pope’s hand isn’t the only monarchical tradition that found its way into papal protocols. A coronation ceremony was part of the installation of a new pope for many centuries. John Paul I and John Paul II abandoned this ceremony. Pope Benedict XVI went even further when he removed the tiara from the papal coat of arms.

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Andrew Strada
5 years 2 months ago

We must congratulate Pope Francis for never missing an opportunity to show to the world just how humble he is. If enough lay people are embarrassed by kissing the air, eventually the more perceptive lay people will take the hint.

Matthew Kilburn
5 years 2 months ago

Perhaps then we should kiss his shoes. He holds an office and is bound by that office, an office worthy of reverence. If he finds accepting such reverence too big a burden, Pope Benedict set another precedent he is welcome to follow.

Michael Bindner
5 years 2 months ago

The ancient Church was an early democracy. We take it back up with both pinky toes. Select a few Cardinal Matriarchs, starting with Orders Major and be open to electing a Mote (e is silent). The founding benefactors of the Church of Rome, which was essentially a parish, were Priscilla and her husband Aquila, who were equal partners. She is thought by some to have written Hebrews and was an apostle, having seen the risen Lord and was among the 72 he sent on mission. They were Pope and Mote if the Roman Church. She was a presbytr as well.

Eucharist being presided over by a woman would not have been considered radical for a Jewish woman. In Judaism, there is already a rite of bread and wine as part of Shabbat dinner from the origination of Shabbat. Using this rite to remember Jesus was the innovation at the Last Supper. The prayer over the challah is called the HaMotzi and is offered by the head of the household. Misa means to send , but one can wonder if the word has some relation to this prayer. They don't tell us everything.

Peter was not the founder of the Church in Rome. He was still in Antioch. Priscilla and Aquila are to the papacy what the presidents of the US were under the Articles if Confederation. We need another Mote. An Ecumenical Matriarch would also be healthy for the body of Christ.

Alfredo S.
5 years 2 months ago


Stephen Jnowski
5 years 2 months ago

Something doesn't sound right. This blew up today and this is the explanation? I would have expected one of the staff to explain to the visitors in line ahead of time rather than just gawk at this awkward display and let everyone embarrass themselves. Strange. Simply strange.

Lisa M
5 years 2 months ago

Watch the whole video for a better perspective.......looks like another jumping the gun moment. But who cares who gets slandered ..........

Basil Chua
5 years 2 months ago

Thank you for writing this article. This provides the narrative to correct the tabloid frenzy. Pope Francis has taken after the name of St Francis of Assisi. He is an inspiration for our generation. Viva Papa Francesco!

Colin Jory
5 years 2 months ago

Why doesn't Pope Francis want people to kiss his ring? He does, and plenty do.

Matthew Kilburn
5 years 2 months ago

Its true other recent Popes have also somewhat deceremonialized the office. It is equally true that none would have honestly accused Benedict XVI of deliberately seeking to diminish the Papacy. More importantly, it is also true that half a century of liberalization and casualising the faith have done nothing to reverse declines in active and faithful practice. I'm not one to say that Vatican II was some sort of inside plot to diminish the faith, yet unless the objective WAS to have fewer attend mass, fewer participate in the sacraments, fewer tithe, and fewer be obedient to moral teachings...I don't know by what standard anyone could say it has been a success.

The Catholic Church was not ordained primarily for the purpose of being a democratic, left-wing social justice club primarily interested in peoples' material status. Please, stop trying to make it one.

Lach Satsuma
5 years 2 months ago

Well, Fr.Eric, you may be right, but I think that the customs had and have nothing to do with clericalism. Abolishing them won't eradicate the clericalism. Since my childhood I've learnt that kissing the ring of pope or bishop or left-leg kneeling before pope is a sign of recognition of their spiritual authority bestowed on them by Jesus Christ, and an expression of respect towards their "apostolic dignity". Don't you think that the lack of respect towards Christ, His teachings and apostolic magisterium is one of the main causes of the present mess in the Church ?

bill halpin
5 years 2 months ago

Perhaps a simple change might help. I'd recommend a simple Gassho. "Gassho, a ritual gesture where the practitioner presses one’s hands together in front of their chest as a sign of greeting or reverence (resembling praying and similar to the Indian practice of namaste), is a gesture with great significance in Zen practice." https://beingzen.com/gassho/

5 years 2 months ago

Amazing how liberal ecclesiastical apologists could find this Benedictine precedent but can't find or believe that Benedict XVI might have told Teddy Bear McCarrick to get out of the public eye.

Paul Crookall
5 years 2 months ago

Let the last word on this topic come from another Jesuit, Thomas d'Esterre Roberts.
Archbishop Roberts was outspoken, with a quirky sense of humor. Once upon a time,
an obsequious Catholic met with Archbishop Roberts and begged leave to kiss his ring -
a practice common before Vatican II. Noticing that the bishop wasn’t wearing it,
the man asked where was his ring ? “In my back pocket,” replied Archbishop Roberts.

joseph mulligan
5 years 2 months ago

Archbishop Thomas Roberts, an English Jesuit, was Archbishop of Bombay, India, from 1937 to 1950.
In order to discourage people from kissing his episcopal ring, he kept it in his back pocket (The New York Times, Feb. 29, 1976) and told people that if they insisted on kissing the ring.

Joseph OKonski
5 years 2 months ago

Thanks, JM, had my (very good) laugh of the day!

Ron Martel
5 years 2 months ago

Amazing how we get off the topic.

Christopher Lochner
5 years 2 months ago

It appears to me that he is being rude, oh wait, Francis, impossible!

Bruce Snowden
5 years 2 months ago

About kissing the Bishop's ring, something for a smile. Following her visions of Our Lady at Lourdes, St. Bernadette was "pestered" so to speak with Bishops visiting with questions, endless interviews,

Once when another Bishop arrived seeking an interview with Bernadette, she tried to wriggle out of the meeting, so tired was she. Mother Superior said to her, "Just think Sister, you can gain a Fifty Day Indulgence by kissing the Bishop's ring!" Bernadette responded, "Yes Mother! But I can gain Three Hundred Days by saying, "My Jesus Mercy!" Mother Superior won the "battle - Bernadette saw the Bishop!

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