THERE was a certain glee in many of the reports about how a crow
and a seagull attacked the two white doves that were released last
weekend, after the Pope called for peace in Ukraine. Aha, some
pundits seemed to say, in real life, the forces of darkness do
triumph over the forces of good.
There were gags about Angry Birds, or about how St Francis of
Assisi, famed for feeding the birds of the air, had not meant that
they should be fed using live, smaller, weaker specimens of the
The more birdbrained commentators even argued that this could
not be a good omen for peace in Ukraine, although I suppose that
was no dafter than those who said, a year ago, that the Holy Spirit
had descended on the cardinals in the conclave that elected Pope
Francis, when a seagull alighted on the chimney of the Sistine
There were more prosaic explanations. Pure-white doves do not
exist in the natural world, one expert said. They are the result of
hundreds of years of domestication and breeding. With their weak
feet and small bills, they are poor at surviving in the wild.
Lacking the homing instincts of pigeons, they cannot even be
trained to return to their cosy cotes. They are easy prey.
But clearly many others preferred to defer to humanity's ancient
notions about the glamour of evil, as the old Catholic baptism
service had it, along with references to the Prince of Darkness.
Sympathy for the devil long predates the Rolling Stones. That
staunch republican John Milton, in revolt against absolutist
authoritarian models of government, painted his Satan with
understanding, if not downright approval.
To all this is added the primeval quality of birds, who, some
say, are the last living relatives of the dinosaurs. The Celts saw
the wild goose as a better symbol of the Holy Spirit than the
fluttering timidity of the dove, for the goose takes wing on a wind
that blows who knows where. In Ted Hughes's poems, the crow stands
for something primeval and sinister, but also ruthlessly
impressive, a dark life-force that feeds on carrion, as on death
itself. And there is that strange red spot on the hooked yellow
bill of the herring gull, which hints at blood and malevolence.
The hooded crow and the cruel-beaked gull made short work of the
doves of peace. One of the released birds got away, minus a few
tail-feathers, but the fate of the one that was repeatedly pecked
by the black-grey crow was less clear. Either way, the scene was so
distressing to pilgrims in St Peter's Square, and to TV viewers,
that animal-rights groups appealed to the Pope Francis to end the
practice of releasing living peace symbols into the inner-city
What those anxious to see symbolism in the event forgot -
especially the right-wing commentator who saw it as a metaphor for
the failure of everything that Pope Francis had done in his first
year in office - is that peace is not an easy or a facile business.
In Christianity, it is embodied in a lamb rather than a dove, and
its triumph comes through submission and sacrifice.
The black crow and the white dove echo, too, what St John wrote
at the start of his Gospel about light and darkness. In human
history, as in the Hebrew scriptures, there are plenty of occasions
where bad men prevail, or appear to do so. The light shines in the
darkness, and "the darkness comprehended it not" - a phrase that is
apt, too, for a number of slick secular observers.
Paul Vallely's biography, Pope Francis - Untying the
knots, is published by Bloomsbury.