Balloons, not doves, were released as a gesture of peace on Sunday in St. Peter’s Square, a year after an attack by a gull and a crow on the symbolic birds set off protests by animal protection groups reports the New York Times.
For years, children have joined the pope at a window of the papal studio overlooking the square to set free a pair of doves on the last Sunday in January. The New York Times reports Pope John Paul II began the tradition of releasing doves to draw attention to the need to work for peace in the world. The Roman Catholic Church traditionally dedicates January to peace themes.
But last year, the gesture of good will became a public relations disaster for the Vatican. According to the Washington Post, the tradition ended after a seagull and a big black crow dive-bombed the doves. Gulls nest atop the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, not far from the Tiber River, and scavenge for garbage. One animal advocacy group likened freeing doves in Rome to issuing a death sentence for the birds.
The perpetrators grabbed a dove by the tail. Feathers ruffled. Children gasped. And the doves flew away, though their fate was never known. The incident prompted animal rights activists to call on Pope Francis to put an end the practice.
Advocates for animals who were demanding an end to the release of doves swiftly appealed to Francis. He is the first pontiff to adopt the name of Francis of Assisi, the saint who was famed for his love for birds and other creatures of the wild.
“Animals born in captivity, not being wild animals, aren’t able to recognize predators as such and are thus incapable of fleeing from possible dangerous situations,” the National Animal Rights Protection Agency said.
The 2014 incident wasn’t the first foul for these doves reports the Washington Post.
When Pope John Paul II stood at the Apostolic Palace window in 2005 with two eight-year-olds who wanted the world to remember children in war-ravaged countries, he intended to let the kids set two doves free as a symbol of peace. He prayed that young people “who so desire peace, become courageous and tenacious builders” of peace.
As the children — a boy and a girl — released the doves, the birds flew back inside in the papal apartment, evoking a laugh from the 84-year-old pontiff, who grabbed one and sent it on its way again. It then returned a second time.
Freed doves returned to Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. The doves did the same thing the next year. And in 2013, a seagull swooped down and snatched one of the birds.
The doves were replaced by balloons on Sunday. Alongside Pope Francis, children released pink, purple, white and green balloons, including a hot-air balloon filled with messages promoting peace.
“Here’s the balloons that mean ‘peace,'” Pope Francis said.
The Vatican did not mention last year’s dove debacle.
[Image via the Washington Post]