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the pets of popes

A recent opinion piece by Frank Bruni in the New York Times pointed out the absurdity of the Pope’s recent castigation of childless pet owners: we are selfish and our lack of procreation diminishes our humanity. Whoa.

I am years past any outrage at the Catholic church, especially on the topic of reproduction. However, something did catch my eye: Bruni’s description of the many papal pets, in particular the tidbit that “Pope Pius XII had a pet goldfinch.” A goldfinch in Rome can only be a European Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis. For about 20 years, I’ve been tracking this species as it has become established in the western Great Lakes. While a pope’s pet bird is hardly relevant to my research and no readily apparent way to work this fact into the paper I’m writing came to mind, I was still curious enough to learn more about this bit of avian trivia.

The Salon article Bruni linked to said Pope Pius XII (we’ll call him PP for short) rescued a female goldfinch, later named Gretel. This story is retold many times in the media, with the most frequent version describing the bird being found with an injured wing by a gardener at the papal summer palace Castel Gandolfo. Typically these stories mention the bird was initially cared for and named (Gretel or Grethel) by a PPs long-time associate, Sister (later Mother) Pascalina/Pasqualina Lehnert.

When PP died in 1958, the New York Times reported that Pasqualina departed Rome with two suitcases and six warblers. However, within a couple of paragraphs the birds were described as canaries and “Gretel, a goldfinch found as a fledgling in the gardens…some years ago.”

A 1967 National Catholic Reporter article provides another version. Rather than being rescued in the gardens, it reports that the goldfinch flopped with a broken wing into the bathroom window where PP was shaving.

The book Pius XII: Hound of Hitler provides still another alternative, that a goldfinch was a gift from a bishop made a cardinal by PP in 1953.

One way or another, it seemed PP did have a pet goldfinch. The plot thickened, however, when viewing the many photos showing the pleasant papal pet ownership.

Here is the most widely distributed photo of PP and a bird. There are a few versions of it, with just slightly different poses or crops. The typewritten caption dates the photo November 1955 (which corresponds with dates when it was published in various newspapers) of Gretel, a bird acquired “18 months ago”. But it describes the bird as a chaffinch.

The same photo in an article by the Catholic News Agency identifies the bird as a canary.

If this Gretel, Gretel was not a goldfinch. While juvenile European Goldfinches are somewhat streaky and lack the red and black head pattern of adults, they still show a bold yellow and black pattern on the wings. Since Gretel is always referred to as a female, it must be from some obviously dimorphic species (another strike against European Goldfinch). This photo is also not a chaffinch or canary (unless one of the unusual duller color mutations). In fact, I’m not entirely sure what this bird is if it is a wild, native species. There are surprisingly few candidates for tiny brown, streaky, Italian songbirds, even if we allow for it being a migrant (having been, if we believe the original photo caption, found in May during migration). My best guess might be a female serin.

Just to add to the mix, here’s a photo of PP holding a bird, described as a bullfinch. I’ve seen a similar photo in color, and can confirm that identification is correct. Nonetheless, the book Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII shows the photo with the caption that it’s a goldfinch, and describes his relationship with Gretel.

To summarize, Pope Pius XII was photographed with a bullfinch, some doves, and the little brownish bird above. He also certainly had canaries, which are often mentioned as his pets, with a personal favorite being named Gretchen. In her memoirs, Pasqualina describes Gretchen as a white canary.

I’ve yet to find a photograph of PP with a goldfinch. In May 1952 (predating both the bishop’s goldfinch gift and the 1957 acquisition of a bird in the garden), the cover of an Italian paper did feature this piece of art of PP shaving and a holding bird — finally, a goldfinch!

The caption begins: “Il cardellino del Papa” — The Pope’s Goldfinch. (The book Shepherd of Souls: A Pictorial Life of Pope Pius XII tells the story of Gretel the goldfinch and reproduces this cover including the caption, and yet right below it the author provides her own caption as “Gretel, the injured canary Pius XIII found in his garden and befriended…”!)

There were apparently no birders or ornithologists in the realm of the Vatican during or after the reign of Pius XII. A fair number of articles and blog posts I’ve read describe PP’s pets as canaries and goldfish — even more taxonomically astray.

So, in conclusion, the Vatican doesn’t know a lot about the birds and the bees, or even just the birds. 

Filed in Flotsam and jetsam