Each year on the last Sunday in January, it has been the custom for the Pope, accompanied by children, to release a pair of doves into St. Peter’s Square from his window in the Apostolic Palace. The tradition, begun by Pope John Paul II, is a poignant symbol of the Vatican’s call for peace during January.
Or at least, that was the custom. Last year the popular tradition turned to disaster when two children released doves from the Pope’s window, only to see them attacked–first by a seagull, then by a crow. The fate of the doves is not known, but it didn’t look good for the gentle white-feathered creatures.
According to U.S. News and World Report:
Gulls nest atop the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, not far from the Tiber River, and scavenge for garbage. One animal advocacy group likened freeing doves in Rome to issuing a death sentence.
So on January 25, 2015, Pope Francis made some adjustments: This year, instead of releasing doves, the Vatican had children release colorful helium balloons into the Rome sky.
* * * * *
Last year’s brutal mid-air attack of the “peace doves” was not the first time that the ceremony didn’t go as planned. Those doves have caused considerable trouble in the past. The doves have occasionally resisted release: turning back to invade the Pope’s office in the Apostolic Palace, perching on the Pope’s shoulder or on the podium. And of course, there’s the inevitable incidence of bird droppings on the heads of the faithful!
Last year, media around the world succumbed to a particularly funny “April Fool’s Day” joke about the hapless doves. It was reported that
“…after a shocking incident in January in which Pope Francis released two white doves, only to see them killed by a crow and a seagull, the Swiss Guard has taken action to ensure that none of the Pope’s “peace doves” meet a similar fate in the future.
A bird of prey named “Sylvia” has been specially trained in northern Italy to protect the Pope’s doves.
Sky News in Australia reported that the Catholic weekly Credere (Believe) fell for the joke; and the story was presented as news in their Thursday edition. Other newspapers around the world picked up on the story and reported it as fact.
But no, there is no Swiss Guard mascot named “Sylvia” to protect the innocent doves. At least this year, balloons were used to remind us of what we all know: That we should pray that God will bless our nation, our Church and our world with His peace.