Pet Loving Popes by Martha Anderson


People look at me in disbelief when I tell them that of all the recent popes, Pope Benedict is my favourite.  Generally this pontiff has had a bad press.  Lacking the warm smile and potential of John Paul I, the charisma of John Paul II and the people appeal of Francis, as well as being ultra conservative, he seems an unlikely candidate for favour.

Pope Benedict’s cats

Well my reason is very simple, like myself he is a cat lover!  And not only that, he is the only pope to have a Vatican authorised biography written by a cat (with a little help from a journalist!).  Chico, a real cat and Benedict’s neighbour in Germany, tells the life story of the man he touchingly describes as “my best friend”.

On his visit to England in 2010 at Birmingham Oratory the pope paused during his official duties to bless Pushkin the resident cat and tickle his ears.

For almost 20 years prior to his being elected pontiff, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lived just east of the Vatican in the Roman neighbourhood of Borgo Pio.  He was observed enjoying rambles along the historic avenues, interrupted only by stray cats who would run to greet him.  Neighbours likened him to a kind of “Dr Dolittle with a Pied Piper charm.”  Of course he did feed the little strays, which must have added to the mutual regard!

At the time of his election as pope Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone told the world’s media “Every time he met a cat, he would talk to it, sometimes for a long time.  The cat would follow him.  Once about 10 cats followed him into the Vatican and one of the Swiss Guards intervened saying, ‘Look your eminence the cats are invading the Holy See!’’’  Which makes it all the more sad that as pope he was not allowed to have any pets in the Vatican.  This is partly because of a hectic itinerary which means other people would have to care for the papal animals.  The poor creatures would have to have protection in case of kidnapping, or the danger of being harmed by fanatics, who wanted to hurt the pontiff.

So after all that it is good to relate that one of the benefits of his retirement was the fact that in his new residence, a former convent, known as Mater Ecclesiae, in the south west corner of Vatican City  there are quite a lot of visiting cats.  And one permanent one, his lovely black and white feline, called Contessina.

The Popes’ Pets – Cats, dogs, birds…. elephant

So what do we know of other popes who had pets, allowed or not?  Well Popes Pius IX and Leo XII both hand fed their favourite Vatican cats, and it is even said that Leo gave papal audiences with his cat Micetto concealed on his lap, with only the occasional dangling paw or swishing tail peeking out to give the game away.  Leo, who reigned in the early years of the 19th century also kept a small dog for company.  When he died, according to the memoirs of the first cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Nicholas Wiseman, the little pet was taken to London by an English aristocrat, Lady Shrewsbury.

There is an enchanting story about pope Pius XII. On one occasion his gardener brought him a wounded little bird.  The pontiff nursed her back to recovery and gave her the name Gretel.  When he worked too late she would hop over and interrupt him until he went to bed.  After she recovered he brought in other birds to keep her company, two goldfinches and a woodpecker from the Black Forest in Germany.  They were frequently allowed out of their cages and would eat at his table from little plates of seed.

Strangest of all, Pope Leo X had an elephant called Hanno who became a star in her own right.  This was in 1514 when times were very different.  Hanno had been given to the pontiff by King Manuel of Portugal in an effort to curry favour.  Leo loved her and when she died he had her buried beneath a courtyard in the Vatican.  Her bones were found there by workmen shortly before the opening of Vatican II.

Do animals go to Heaven?

So all this leaves us with an intriguing question – Do animals go to Heaven?  Surprisingly Pope Benedict says no and Pope Francis contradicted that, said yes, and now is not quite sure!  But happily Pope St John Paul in 1990 implied that animals had souls because they too were created from the breath of God.

What a lovely thought but what do you think?