VATICAN CITY — Photographers in St. Peter’s Square yesterday caught the sad scene of a freshly released dove being attacked by a crow and seagull.
The annual dove launch by the pope and two children is meant to highlight the church’s call for peace in the world.
But, unfortunately, the forces of nature (namely hungry predator birds circling the square) usually prevail every year and the symbol of peace becomes prey.
I did a story several years ago that looked at the problem and an easy solution that would not appall bird lovers and would keep the children’s month of peace tradition flying.
Perhaps the advice and the story originally published Feb. 13, 2004, are worth repeating?
Wing and a prayer: Vatican doves sometimes turn chicken
By Carol Glatz
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The noble white dove has come to symbolize peace, fidelity, fraternity and hope, but the Vatican seems to have seen more than its fair share of doves suffering from a fear of flying.
Some might even say those doves are really just chicken.
What’s meant to be an impressive launch from the fifth-story window of the pope’s studio instead turns into a feathery fiasco. In 1998 both doves recoiled from their release and turned tail back inside the apostolic palace. Delighted, Pope John Paul II said, “It is clear this is a house of peace, because the doves don’t want to leave.”
This scene of one or both doves diving for papal cover has been repeated over the years. Most recently, on Jan. 25, call it stage-fright, call it premonition: One dove refused to leave the pope’s windowsill while the more gutsy of the two flew off to a grisly fate. One Italian newspaper reported the bird of peace was later found injured from a seagull attack.
The dove-launch over St. Peter’s Square occurs the last Sunday of every January after the pope’s Angelus.
The annual avian event started 25 years ago, said Father Antonio Magnotta, assistant to the Rome branch of Italy’s Catholic Action youth group. He said the group asked the Vatican if the kids could help celebrate what’s considered the month of peace with their bishop, Pope John Paul.
Each year, two children join the pope at the end of his noonday prayer, read a message of peace and help launch two white doves.
If only symbolism could be so simple.
“The problem is they toss the doves out with too much force; the bird doesn’t know where it’s going, so it boomerangs back to get its proper bearings,” said Bernard de Cottignies, veteran Vatican Radio journalist and messenger-dove fancier with several champion birds under his cote.
“To get a good takeoff they should slowly open their hands, let the bird get its sense of direction, and then it will go when it’s ready,” he said.
Launching techniques aside, how much is known about where the doves go at the end of the show?
“They head to the Vatican gardens, I think,” Father Magnotta said.
But officials at the Vatican’s immaculately pruned gardens told CNS that there are no white doves there.
“We have lots of grey pigeons, but white doves? I never saw them here,” said the head of the gardens, Elio Cortellessa.
De Cottignies said the white doves end up homeless and starving.
“White doves are usually bred for meat and lack the homing instinct of messenger-doves” — which are also known as “racing pigeons,” he said.
Another problem with farm-raised fowl, he said, is that the white dove cannot fend for itself in the city.
But luckily for the doves, there was a Good Samaritan looking out for them for a while.
“For five years I picked up the stray doves, half-starved and lost in St. Peter’s Square on my way home from work to take them to a friend’s house in the country,” confessed de Cottignies.
Although the release of doves onto St. Peter’s Square is wholly organized by Italian Catholic Action, once upon a time the Vatican used doves in its beatification and canonization ceremonies.
According to a Franciscan Web site, the Mass’s offertory after the act of canonization was made up of “wax candles, bread, wine, water, two turtle doves, two pigeons and a number of smaller birds” in gilded cages.
These offerings were presented to the pope and were meant to “lift up our hearts and minds to the love and contemplation of the supernatural,” the Web site explained.
“I remember in 1976 when the Scottish Jesuit martyr (John Ogilvie) was canonized, the Jesuits turned up with wine and a dove,” said Msgr. Charles Burns, a church historian who spent more than 25 years as an official of the Vatican Archives.
But Archbishop Piero Marini, the pope’s master of liturgical ceremonies, said that after the Second Vatican Council, the use of doves and other symbols in liturgical ceremonies was phased out in favor of simpler gifts.
“But the present-day tradition of the children coming to the pope’s window to release the doves is very nice,” Msgr. Burns said. “It’s a lot like Noah’s Ark,” the dove flying back from land, symbolizing hope and peace.
De Cottignies said there is a solution that would not appall bird lovers and would keep the children’s month of peace tradition flying.
“They could use white messenger-doves. They would have a much more stunning takeoff since the bird knows where home is and would head straight there with impressive speed,” he said.