A papal tradition has come to a bizarre end. For years, popes have sent out white doves as a symbol of peace after an annual meeting with young people from the youth movement called Catholic Action.
The anticipated avian emissaries were replaced this year by a bunch of colored balloons, set afloat from the balcony of the papal apartments.
Last Sunday, Pope Francis approached the window of the Apostolic Palace accompanied by a boy and a girl belonging to two different Roman parishes, but when the moment came for the traditional launch of the doves, balloons were released instead of the birds.
The reason? Last January 27 was witness to a macabre incident. In an episode worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, as the Pope’s entourage released two white doves, they were violently set upon by a black crow and a seagull, to the horror of onlookers.
Immediately, some in the media began speaking about possessed or diabolical birds, while others suggested evil omens. The rainbow peace flags flown in Saint Peter’s Square that day would have represented, according to some, a worldly or even satanic peace, foreign to Christianity. At the time, an expert in demonology, Vincenzo Scarpello, was called in, and did his best to assure readers that “we are in Rome, where pagan superstition of ornithomancy (the reading of bird omens) isn’t that far away, historically.” Scarpello shared his personal opinion that “if this was any kind of message, it would decry the persecution suffered by Christians throughout the world.”
According to Mel White of National Geographic, however, the doves were attacked by the other birds for a much more mundane reason: because they were white. In cities like Rome, White contends, there are thousands of pigeons, which are relatives of the doves, but the color of their plumage is usually between black, gray and brown. They blend in with the color of the asphalt and the facades of the buildings and are therefore not identifiable to the other birds. Cases of completely white plumage, White claims, are very rare.
White claimed that the birds were “freakish,” bred an unnatural white because the color “symbolizes peace, purity, serenity, and other good stuff.” But according to White, “There are no pure-white doves in the natural world.” The birds that were released were bred “for use as pets, and for release at weddings and other ceremonies.”
This year’s balloon launch, however, proceeded without incident. As they drifted off, the Pope said: “I thank you, and encourage you to continue walking the Christian path with joy, leading all to the peace of Jesus.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter: @tdwilliamsrome.