Pope Benedict, the lark and the raven

I picked up something from Ignatius Insight which caught my eye.  They posted an excerpt from Pope Benedict’s autobiographical Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977.

His Holiness recounted something that happened during his ordination to the priesthood, sixty years ago today as I write.  The Pope wrote:

We were more than forty candidates, who, at the solemn call on that radiant summer day, which I remember as the high point of my life, responded “Adsum”, Here I am. We should not be superstitious; but, at that moment when the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird—perhaps a lark—flew up from the high altar in the cathedral and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words “This is good, you are on the right way.”

Now for a personal anecdote of my own.

In April 2005 for Pope Benedict’s first big Mass in St. Peter’s Square to inaugurate his pontificate, and when people were still buzzing a bit about why he chose the name “Benedict”, another interesting bird event occurred.

For that Mass I happily had a break from work for Fox News (I was on a lot as a contributor and doing “color commentary” in those days).  For the Mass I was in the press section on top of one of the big “arms” which stretch out from the Basilica, rather close to the Basilica itself in the straight part before the arm curves.

I believe it was just after the sermon of the Mass, in a silent aftermath … no choir singing, no organ playing, no one talking… a raven flew out from behind the Basilica, on our arm’s side, swooped in a couple circles over where the altar was positions, cawing loudly, and then disappeared whence it came.

Benedict chose the name “Benedict” in part because of the pivotal figure of St. Benedict of Nursia, whose monastic tradition played such an important role in the developed of liturgical worship and in the preservation of Western civilization.

St. Benedict is very often depicted with a raven in artistic representations.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are surely saying.  “A raven? Isn’t that a bad bird?  Isn’t a raven is sign of something …  ummm…. bad?”

Yes, the raven has developed some bad P.R. over the centuries.  But the raven also has its good press.

Consider, for example, the Bible.  Elijah was fed by ravens in the wilderness.

St. Gregory the Great (+603) wrote of the life of St. Benedict.  Gregory in his Dialogues tells how in the wilderness Benedict fed a raven with some of his meager bread.  Later, when a wicked priest tried to kill Benedict with poisoned bread, Benedict asked the raven to take the deadly morsel away and put it where it couldn’t harm anyone.

Gregory writes:

Then the raven, opening its beak wide and spreading its wings, began to run around the bread, cawing, as if to indicate that it wanted to obey but was unable to carry out the order. Again and again the man of God told him to do it, saying, ‘Pick it up, pick it up. Do not be afraid. Just drop it where it cannot be found.’ After hesitating a long time, the raven took the bread in its beak, picked it up and flew away. Three hours later it came back, after having thrown the bread away, and received its usual ration from the hands of the man of God.

Toward the end of the sermon at that inaugural Mass, Pope Benedict – newly and reluctantly elected – said:

At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

In another connection, it was at that inaugural Mass that Pope Benedict received his pallium as Bishop of Rome, just as today, on his 60th Jubilee and the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, he conferred the pallium on others.

Do say prayers for the Holy Father, asking God to give him the graces he needs not to be afraid in his role as Vicar of Christ.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. The raven is a wise bird. The crow is a wise guy. :)

    The thing that kills me is that so many people have little stories about interesting stuff that happens (like my friends who had a rainstorm outside their Murphy’s Law-plagued wedding, and then when they were married, all of a sudden the sun came out and a rainbow stretched across the whole sky in full view of the guests indoors). But when historians consider such stories, many assume they didn’t happen. (As if people back then lived in a vastly different and more boring physics than us, where coincidences and cool happenings were forbidden.)

    Ad multos annos, Papa! And what a lovely Mass and feastday, from what I can see on TV….

  2. Banjo pickin girl says:

    I wonder whether ravens favor Benedictines because of the black habits! St. Meinrad had pet ravens who swooped and cawed about the heads of his murderers, thus alerting the townspeople to his death and enabling them to apprehend them.

  3. jasoncpetty says:

    See also this article, which has an account of the incident. It also has a great line regarding people attending the first Masses of the newly ordained priests:

    “On the day of our first Holy Mass, our parish church of Saint Oswald gleamed in all its splendor, and the joy that almost palpably filled the whole place drew everyone there into the most living mode of ‘active participation’ in the sacred event, but this did not require any external busyness.”

  4. HighMass says:

    Viva il Papa! :)

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    The raven has a long history as a bird of wisdom, going back into pagan times. Odin had two ravens named Thought and Memory that flew out every day and brought him the news of the world. They are heralds of battle in Celtic mythology. The ancient Romans thought that ravens were particularly important birds to observe for reading omens. Here in the American South, where we don’t have ravens but do have crows, if you see an odd-numbered group of crows it’s GOOD luck, but an even number of crows is BAD luck. My sister once remarked, “All you need is an even number of crows and a shotgun.” And then there are of course the Tower Ravens — supposedly if they ever leave the Tower of London, England will fall.

    The pagan associations are probably what gave the bird a bad name. That and the fact that as carrion eaters they hang around battlefields.

  6. Pachomius says:

    Only tangentially related, but the lark is also important in Dryden’s Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell, set to music by John Blow. The first stanza begins:

    Mark how the lark and linnet sing
    With rival notes
    They strain their warbling throats,
    To welcome in the Spring.

    Dryden, of course, converted to Catholicism with the ascension to the throne of King James II & VII in 1685. He celebrated this with a work entitled The Hind and the Panther, published in 1687… the year before King James was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution”, falsely so-called.

  7. capchoirgirl says:

    I’ve started saying the Prayer for the Pope found in the Pieta Prayer Book every day. I also pray for priests and bishops…how much they need our prayers!

  8. Gulielmus says:

    Just to amplify the bird imagery, remember that St Benedict had a vision of St Scholastica’s (his twin sister’s) soul flying to heaven as a dove upon her death.

  9. Charles E Flynn says:

    If any of you are in graduate school, you should not miss Joseph Ratzinger’s riveting account in this book of what happened to him when he was about to receive his degree, and the resolution he made as a result of it.

  10. guans says:

    “when we give ourselves to Him…”- reminds me of how for years I would not pray the “Holy Spirit, Beloved of my soul…” prayer because it contains the lines: “I promise to submit to all that You desire of me and to accept all that you permit to happen to me”
    Oh if we could only believe and act on: God’s Will= Happiness; our will=misery.
    Beautiful article Father Z, thanks for the post.

  11. teomatteo says:

    Was it not a raven that brought judgement upon the ‘bad thief’ in Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’?

  12. Centristian says:

    I think that’s a neat story. I can imagine Pope Benedict, during his papal inauguration, perhaps recalling the bird that appeared at his priestly ordination and then being surprised to be hailed by a raven. A little “you’re on the right path”, again, from Providence.

  13. anna 6 says:

    Thank you for the lovely story.

    I can practically recite that quote from the pope’s Inaugural Mass by heart. It was what brought me back into the fold…

    “If we let Christ enter fully into our lives…Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation… When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return!”

    God bless Benedict XVI.

  14. Ravens are also long-lived birds in legend, so you can’t say the good Lord didn’t warn our little pope! Maybe the raven was crying, “Cras! Cras!” (Tomorrow, tomorrow!), just like in the St. Expeditus iconography. :)

    They say some ravens and crows are so teachable of pets that they actually do learn to “speak” a few words on cue, though it’s nothing like parrots or mynahs can do. And ravens in nature have been seen adapting and using “tools” to get food. They’re companions of heroes in a lot of Eastern European fairy tales, too.

  15. rollingrj says:

    So, then, no more, “Nevermore'”?

  16. irishgirl says:

    What a cool story about the lark at our Holy Father’s priestly ordination!
    I knew about the raven’s association with St. Benedict. I have a book on him at home that has a series of interesting illuminations of scenes from his life. One shows the raven ‘kicking away’ the loaf of poisoned bread!
    Viva il Papa!

  17. Thank you for a great and inspirational post!

  18. benedetta says:

    Great post and I second the “Viva”!

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