What Does a Key Signify in the Catholic Church?

Popes typically wear a coat of arms containing the keys on on their fascia, the belt that holds the simar closed.
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On March 18, 2013, Pope Francis released the coat of arms he would use throughout his papacy. Like the coats of arms of popes before him, his contained two crossed keys, one silver and one gold. These keys, known as the papal keys, symbolize the keys to the Kingdom. They are a common Catholic symbol.

1 Origin

In the Gospel of Matthew (16:19), Jesus said to Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Catholics believe that in this verse the keys symbolize a right to lead and control the church. Jesus granted this right first to Peter making Peter the head of the Christian church and the first pope. The right was then transferred from Peter to his successors down the line to the current pope.

2 Symbolism

Beyond leadership, the keys also symbolize authority. Catholics believe that when Jesus gave Peter the keys to heaven, he also gave the power to admit people to heaven or bar them as the situation merits. In other words, the keys symbolize the traditional Catholic belief that salvation exists solely within the framework of church authority. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in section 1445, "Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God." The keys symbolize the right to grant or deny that reconciliation.

3 Implications

Catholics believe that only God can save people and grant them admittance to heaven. They believe, however, that the power to forgive sins was granted by God to Peter and his successors. In day-to-day terms that means that the pope, the cardinals and bishops who were ordained by the pope, and the priests who were ordained by the bishops are the only ones who can hear confessions and say Mass. These church leaders confer forgiveness, and they admit or deny communion with the church and, by extension, with God.

4 Use

Keys are common symbols on Catholic confessionals, where they symbolize the power to forgive sins. In statues, Peter is usually pictured holding keys, the symbol of his authority. Keys are also common symbol in the Vatican. The Sistine Chapel contains a fresco of Jesus granting the keys to Peter. In the Vatican gardens, the papal coat of arms is depicted in topiary. In fact, the layout of St. Peter's Basilica is key-shaped. These uses in the Vatican symbolize the authority of the pope and the office he holds as the successor to Peter.

Susan Peterson is the author of five books, including "Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes" and "Clare: A Novel." She holds a Ph.D. in text theory from the University of Texas at Arlington and is an avid cook and gardener.