What is a coat of arms?
Coat of arms is a special design on a shield that identifies and represents a person, family, group or a country. More than just representing or identifying its owner, papal coat of arms symbolizes a pope's primary guiding principles.
Coat of Arms of Pope Francis
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On the center of the blue shield of Pope Francis' coat of arms is the emblem of the Society of Jesus, the pope's order of origin. He retained this Jesuit emblem from his episcopal coat of arms. The emblem consists of the radiant yellow sun, inside of which are three red letters "IHS" which is derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus; a cross surmounting the letter H; and three black nails under the letter H.
Below the Jesuit emblem, are the yellow star which represents the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the nard flower which represents St. Joseph, patron of the universal church. The star and the nard flower symbolize the pope's devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.
Below the shield is Pope Francis' motto "Miserando atque eligendo", meaning lowly but chosen; literally means by 'having mercy, by choosing him' in Latin.
Coat of Arms of Pope Benedict XVI
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The shield of Pope Benedict XVI's coat of arms is in the shape of a chalice. It is divided into three sections.
Shell - at the center of the shield is a gold shell which has three symbols:
First, it symbolizes the story of St. Augustine who was walking by the seashore while trying to understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity. He saw a boy who was trying to scoop water from the sea and pour them into the small hole in the sand using a seashell. He asked the boy what he was doing, the boy explained that he wanted to put the entire sea into that small hole. St. Augustine told the boy that it is impossible to transfer the sea into that tiny hole. The boy told St. Augustine that it is more impossible to fathom the depths of God's mystery with his inadequate human intelligence. Then the boy vanished who was, according to legend was an angel.
Second, the shell also symbolizes pilgrimage. It is the sign of a pilgrim. The Pope is a pilgrim to all the corners of the world.
Third, the shell is found in the coat of arms of the ancient Monastery of Schotten near Regensburg in Bavaria. Pope Benedict XVI is spiritually bound to this ancient monastery.
Moor's head - at the upper left corner of the shield is a Moor's head. It is the ancient emblem of the Diocese of Freising which was founded in the 8th century. In 1818 the diocese became a Metropolitan Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. In March 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed Joseph Ratzinger as Archbishop of Munich and Freising. He introduced this emblem into his episcopal coat of arms.
Brown bear or Corbinian's bear - at the upper right corner of the shield is a brown bear with a packsaddle on its back. Tradition tells a story of Freising's first Bishop, St. Corbinian who travelled to Rome on a horseback ride. While on the road, his horse was attacked and killed by a bear, but St. Corbinian was able to tame the bear and even made the bear carry his load. When he arrived in Rome, the bear returned to Bavaria. Corbinian's bear symbolizes the weight of office that Pope Benedict XVI carried.
Pallium - below the shield is the Pallium with three red crosses. It represents the role of the Bishop as the shepherd to Christ's flock.
Coat of Arms of Pope John Paul II
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There are only two items on the blue shield of Pope John Paul II's coat of arms - the cross and the capital letter M. It is intended as an act of homage to the Redemption.
The coat of arms also reflects Pope John Paul II's deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary who steadfastly stood at the foot of the cross as represented by the capital letter M beneath the cross.
Symbols of Papal Dignity
The coat of arms of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II all has the same major components: two keys - a gold key and a silver key joined by a red cord; and a shield. But Pope John Paul II used a papal tiara while Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI both used the mitre instead of a papal tiara.
Meaning of the symbols of papal dignity:
1. Papal tiara - found above of Pope John Paul II's blue shield is the tiara. The tiara has been used for centuries by popes in their coat of arms until the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. The three crowns of the tiara represent the three powers of Order, Jurisdiction and Magisterium.
2. Mitre - above the shields of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI is a bishop's mitre with three gold stripes which recalls the three crowns of the tiara that represent order, jurisdiction and magisterium. The three stripes retained this meaning.
3. The two keys symbolize the power to loose and bind on heaven and on earth which was Christ's promise to Peter in Matthew 16:19 "I will entrust to you they keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound on heaven; whatever you declared loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
a. Gold key represents the power that reaches to heaven.
b. Silver key represents the pope's spiritual authority on earth.
c. Red cord that joined the two keys indicates the unity of the two powers.