National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 17, 2003

Pope John Paul II kisses the hand of Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury following their meeting at the Vatican Oct. 4. Williams wore the ring given to a predecessor, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, by Pope Paul VI.
-- CNS/Catholic Press Photo
Pope Paul's gift marked moving moment of ecumenical drama

When Paul VI famously gave his ring to the then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey on March 24, 1966, there were no TV cameras to record the event, no photographers standing by. That’s a pity, because the exchange marked one of the most moving chapters in the modern ecumenical drama.

Anglican Fr. John Andrew, however, was one of two witnesses to the exchange, and on Oct. 4 he told NCR the full story.

The night before, March 23, Paul VI had dispatched a member of the papal household to the Venerable English College on Via di Monserrato to find Andrew, who was then Ramsey’s private secretary. The pope wanted to give the ring he had worn as cardinal archbishop of Milan to Ramsey, the messenger said. He wanted to know if the archbishop should be forewarned, or should it be a surprise?

Andrew consulted another aide, and both agreed: Let it be a surprise.

The next morning, Pope Paul and Archbishop Ramsey led an ecumenical liturgy in Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul’s-outside-the Walls. In telling symbolism, they entered side by side and sat on the same level, close to each other. They also signed a “Common Declaration,” affirming their desire that “all those Christians who belong to these two communions may be animated by these same sentiments of respect, esteem and fraternal love.”

After the ceremony was over, Paul VI pulled Ramsey aside to show him some frescoes on an interior wall of the basilica. As Ramsey gazed up, Paul asked him, in his rather accented English, to remove his ring. Ramsey didn’t understand, so he turned to Andrew, who said: “Take off your ring.”

Ramsey did, handing it to Andrew.

Paul VI then took Ramsey’s right hand and placed the green and gold ring, with a cross in the center and four diamonds around it, on his finger. Ramsey paused a moment, allowing the significance of the gesture to sink in: The Bishop of Rome was, in effect, recognizing him as a fellow member of the episcopate, and in some sense the church he led as a “sister” to the church of Rome.

Ramsey burst into tears. Paul reached out and embraced him, and for a moment, the two men stood in each other’s arms, almost alone within the immense basilica.

Ramsey then said his tearful farewell to Pope Paul. Andrew suddenly realized that he had a protocol problem, because he too had to take his leave of the pope, who now had no ring to kiss. Andrew knelt, gathered both papal hands, and kissed them. Paul then put his hands on Andrew’s cheeks, gently lifting him to a standing position, and bade goodbye.

Ramsey wore Pope Paul’s ring for the rest of his life. It subsequently became the property of Lambeth Palace in Canterbury, and it is the custom of archbishops of Canterbury to wear the ring when they visit the pope.

Two footnotes to the story:

On the night of the 24th, Paul VI’s messenger once again appeared at Andrew’s door at the English College. “The pope found the box for his ring,” the messenger said, “and asked that I bring it to you.”

Andrew’s response was unhesitating.

“I know my archbishop will wear that ring until the day he dies,” Andrew said. “He’ll never need this box, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to keep it.”

The messenger smiled.

“That’s what the pope thought,” he said. “That’s why he had me bring it to you.”

Andrew, who is now retired after serving as rector of St. Thomas Anglican Church in New York, had never met Rowan Williams, the current archbishop of Canterbury, prior to his Oct. 3-5 visit to Rome. They two men greeted each other at a reception at Doria Pamphili Palace, where Andrew recounted this story for Williams. He then asked to see the ring, which Williams had put on for the first time for his visit to John Paul II.

Andrew kissed the ring.

“That’s for my dear Michael,” he told Williams.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 2003

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