Q: Why do people kiss the pope’s ring? This strikes me as a very odd custom and is certainly not based on the Bible. I have never found anyone who could give me a good explanation for this practice.
A: This is a mark of respect in some cultures. Such marks vary widely according to the background of the persons involved. In the United States, for example, if you are seated when the president of the country enters a room, you stand as a mark of respect for that office.
Members of an orchestra stand when the conductor comes to the podium. A few days after 9/11, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had a regularly scheduled concert, the first for its new music director, Paavo Järvi. My memory is that all of us in the audience stood up as he came onstage to begin that performance.
A couple months ago, the soldier-son of one of our co-workers at St. Anthony Messenger Press came to a company meeting to thank us for our prayers and good wishes for his recovery after he was injured in Iraq. People spontaneously stood up when he was introduced and walked into the room.
Marks of respect reflect the time and culture of the person wishing to show respect. Kissing the pope’s ring or a bishop’s ring is a custom generally on the wane—in my observation. Respect can remain strong even as different ways of expressing it evolve.