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No easy flight for the white doves

31 January 2014

Peace-making is not a facile business, says Paul Vallely

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 species.

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 chapel.

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 square.

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.

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