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The 'Sistine Seagull' code

Posted by Stephanie St. Martin  March 14, 2013 01:31 PM

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Dan Brown would appreciate the symbolism.

A seagull decided yesterday that the perfect place to perch for the evening was on a chimney. But not just any chimney. This seagull decided to sit atop the Sistine Chapel smokestack. Yes, the same chimney the world was watching as it eagerly awaited holy (white) smoke. The bird sat there, giving the crowd gathered below a reason to smile in the cold, damp day in Rome and news stations a story to report when no other signal had yet to appear.

Naturally, a Twitter handle was created almost immediately for the Sistine Seagull (gotta love social media). For a creature who already tweets (or caws "mine"), his social voice brought laughter worldwide. My favorite: "OMG somebody dropped a Cheeto! BRB, somebody keep an eye on the smoke for me." (The bird followed it up by saying it wasn't a Cheeto, but actually Cardinal Scola.) Apparently, Italian seagulls and those on the beaches of Cape Cod have a lot in common.

Soon enough, the white smoke flew, and the new pope was announced: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. A humble man, the first Jesuit pope, the runner-up in the previous papal conclave. As a Catholic woman myself, I couldn't help but think how fitting it was that a seagull gave us a "clue" to the new pope's identity.

When Cardinal Bergoglio stepped on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, he emerged as Pope Francis I. Stories soon circulated about his self-chosen name. And it wasn't long before it was revealed as an homage to St. Francis of Assisi. Yes, St. Francis of Assisi was a man of action. Yes, he commanded attention. Yes, he lived in poverty (similar to the new pope, who traded his Buenos Aires palace for a modest apartment).

St. Francis of Assisi is also, fittingly, the patron saint of animals. In fact, there is a story of how St. Francis of Assisi made a trip through the Spoleto Valley and actually preached to the birds that were flying overhead. He told these birds that God made them noble among creatures, as their home is the pure air. Some churches, including my home parish, honor St. Francis by blessing the community's pets. Members of the parish bring their dogs, cats, rabbits, and even fish into the church to receive a blessing from the priest.

One news station reported that the seagull represented a sign of resurrection of the church, a new beginning. That may be true. But, for me, the Sistine Seagull is also a reminder that all creatures, great and small, really do matter.

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