by Fr. Mark Goldasich
Several months ago some summertime visitors to the parish were chatting with me after Mass. One was describing a book she’d just read that she was certain I’d enjoy.
The details of that conversation faded from my mind until a couple of weeks ago, when the mother-in-law of that visitor handed me a package from Amazon, the online bookseller. It contained a biography of Pope Benedict XVI and, though I’m not a big fan of biographies, I grinned when I saw this one.
This book is entitled, “Joseph and Chico,” by Jeanne Perego (San Francisco: Ignatius Press; 2007; $17.95). Its subtitle shows what makes this volume unique: “The Life of Pope Benedict XVI as Told by a Cat.” Yes, you read that right. It’s a tabby cat, Chico, who tells this story in 37 pages.
While supposedly a children’s book (ages 9-12), I can assure you this “big kid” got a kick out of it. the introduction is written by Father Georg Ganswein, who actual private secretary to the pope, who assures readers that “everything you will find in this book… is all true and interesting.”
It will only take adults about a half-hour to read this, and that includes “lingering time” to savor the beautiful illustrations by Donata Dal Molin Casagrande. But what will stick with you long afterward is that the pope is a real person.
For example, Chico tells a story of the pope when he was just a small boy and was “a little naughty.” Apparently, little Joseph Ratzinger wanted a teddy bear that he’s seen in a shop window. When it wasn’t there one day, Joseph had an outburst, screaming and kicking his feet against the empty window. (Parents, take heart!) By the way, the bear was gone because his parents had already bought it for him as a Christmas present.
I laughed out loud when reading that the pope at age three saw a huge black limo pull up to his nursery school. After a cardinal emerged from the car, little Joseph mentioned that he wanted to be one, too, when he grew up. Chico follows this with the comment: “but he soon forgot about this, since for a long while he also though he wanted to be a house painter.”
Chico notes that the future pope was ordained a priest on June 29, 1951, by Cardinal Faulhaber, the “very person whom Joseph, as a little boy, hand so admired in front of his nursery school.”
It’s tidbits like the one above — as well as the fact that the future Pope Benedict XVI was born on Holy Saturday (April 16) in 1927, or that the pope loves to play the piano (especially pieces by Mozart, “who seems to be his favorite composer”) — that keep this story flowing.
But be warned: Chico has an attitude. In other words, he’s a typical cat. He has an opinion on many thing — like Latin, for example. He concedes that while it’s been useful for Joseph, who “even seems to speak Latin fluently,” he doesn’t have much use for it. Chico notes that “mus means mouse, feles means cat, and sinus means cate food bowl. Just between us, these are the most important words in every language, so it’s best to learn them well.”
Chico even riffs on the pope’s personal coat of arms, which features an animal in one of the sections (really). He writes about this animal “that holds a special place in [the pope’s] heart. Did you say ‘a cat’? Nope, I’m sorry to say, even if I agree with you; a big beautiful ginger tabby would have cut quite a figure on that coat of arms.” He goes on to explain why the animal actually featured there is a bear.
A two-page illustration near the end of the book captures the story well. It shows Chico slumbering in the pope’s lap — one of the pope’s hands is on a prayer book; the other is cradling the cat.
This tender image is one of to keep in mind as w anticipate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4 and the tradition of blessing animals that some parishes offer at that time. Even if you don’t attend a formal ceremony, take a few moments to bless any pets you might have. And remember: Always be kind to them. After all, they might be writing your biography some day!