Christmas through Margaret’s eyes

Illustration: "Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s: A Christmas Story" by Jon M. Sweeney and illustrated by Roy DeLeon (Paraclete Press, 2018)

Her name is Margaret, the pope’s cat who’s become a fixture in the Vatican. Swiss Guards open doors for her. Kitchen staff prepare her favorite dishes. The pope’s vicar knows her habits, and enjoys her company. Crowds who gather in St. Peter’s Square know where to look to catch a glimpse of her sitting on the furniture in the windows of the pope’s apartment.

The pope met Margaret for the first time along the Via della Conciliazione, the street that connects St. Peter’s Square to the west bank of the Tiber River — and these fictional stories about cat and pontiff are ways of connecting what happens in the Vatican, and in a pope’s daily activities, with what happens in Rome and beyond.

Since the books are written foremost for children, it seems appropriate to use a cat character. Children enjoy learning, but they learn best through stories. And stories told from the perspective of lovable, sometimes vulnerable, characters are especially effective. Few adults can remember what it was like to take instruction from parents and teachers who are two or three times their size. Imagine Jack peering up at the giant, or approaching that beanstalk, and that’s how kids experience learning most of the time! Unless they are reading, or being read to.

When I was a child, it was Corduroy, the stuffed bear lost in the department store after closing time, or Winnie the Pooh, set adrift during a flood in the Hundred Acre Wood. I still remember reading those episodes in vulnerability, and listening carefully to what those bears discovered.

Illustration: “Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s: A Christmas Story” by Jon M. Sweeney and illustrated by Roy DeLeon (Paraclete Press, 2018)

The new book in The Pope’s Cat series has Margaret lost in St. Peter’s Basilica. She runs, frightened at the sheer scope and size of the space, and finds a resting place beside Michelangelo’s famous Pietà sculpture. From that vantage-point, she learns why the Mother of God is holding Jesus dead in her arms. Margaret learns what Pietà means, and she begins to comprehend Jesus’s passion. Then, she’s befriended by a child, and reunited with the pope as Midnight Mass is about to begin.

It’s true, I’m trying to teach our kids many things in these little books. But shhhhh, please don’t tell.

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