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Vol. XI, No. 3

Benedict, the Bear, and the Shell

Online Edition - May 2005

Explanation of the Pope's Name and Symbolism in the Papal Coat of Arms

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

In his first Wednesday audience, April 27, Pope Benedict XVI explained the significance of his papal name. First he said that he had in mind Pope Benedict XV, "who guided the Church through the turbulent times of the First World War. He was a true and courageous prophet of peace who struggled strenuously and bravely, first to avoid the drama of war and then to limit its terrible consequences. In his footsteps I place my ministry, in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples, profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is above all a gift of God, a fragile and precious gift to be invoked, safeguarded and constructed, day after day and with everyone's contributions".

He also mentioned Saint Benedict of Norcia (480-547), founder of the Benedictine Order, co-patron of Europe (with Saints Cyril and Methodius), who, the Holy Father explained, "exercised an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity throughout the European continent" and is especially revered in the Holy Father's native Bavaria. Through Saint Benedict's efforts Christianity was spread throughout barbarian Europe, in chaos after the collapse of Rome. Saint Benedict, the pope said, "constitutes a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe and a powerful call to the irrefutable Christian roots of European culture and civilization. I ask him to help us all to hold firm to the centrality of Christ in our Christian life: May Christ always take first place in our thoughts and actions!" During his visit April 26 to the basilica of Saint Paul's Outside the Walls, Pope Benedict had emphasized the Church's missionary mandate that is now "more important than ever", and noted that Saint Benedict's Rule exhorted his monks "to put nothing before the love of Christ".

The papal coat of arms, pictured here on a commemorative card from the Mass of Inauguration, incorporates symbols used in the Holy Father's original heraldic device when he was Archbishop of Munich, and they reflect his German heritage as well as his personal history.

The image of a bear with a pack on its back recalls a legend about the 8th-century Bishop Corbinian, who preached Christianity in Bavaria. The bishop was traveling to Rome with a pack animal that was attacked and mauled by the bear; whereupon the bishop ordered the wild bear to carry the mauled animal's burden to Rome. As "God's beast of burden", the saddled bear symbolizes the burden of the papal office.

The scallop shell has several symbolic meanings. First is Saint Augustine's vision of a small child using a shell to pour the sea into a little hole, thus revealing to Augustine the unfathomable magnitude of God and the absurdity of attempting to confine Him. (Pope Benedict wrote his doctoral dissertation on Saint Augustine). The shell is also a traditional symbol of pilgrimage, associated with the missionary journeys of Saint James, and alludes to the "pilgrim people of God" stressed by the Second Vatican Council. The shell on the staff of Saint James was also the heraldic emblem of a monastery in Regensburg, Germany, where the Holy Father had been professor of theology. His elder brother, Georg, was choirmaster at the Cathedral at Regensburg.

The Caput Aethiopum (Ethiopian head) is the heraldic symbol of Freising, and is used on the episcopal arms of the bishops of Munich and Freising.

An innovation in the emblem is that the traditional papal tiara is replaced with a bishops' mitre, whose three stripes represent Christ's three-fold office of prophet, priest and king (teaching, sanctifying and governing) and the stripes are joined with a vertical stripe signifying the unity of these roles in the Vicar of Christ. The crossed keys of Peter are a traditional emblem of the papacy. The device also includes the pallium, the woolen band signifying a pope or archbishop's "yoke" of authority, as Pope Benedict explained in his homily at the Mass of Inauguration.

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