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VATICAN LETTER Apr-24-2009 (800 words) With photos. xxxi

Bird's-eye view: Children's book portrays personal side of pope

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A new children's book offers a bird's-eye view of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate, with insider tidbits on his daily routine and his personal interests.

Published with the Vatican's blessing, it's the latest effort to humanize a pope who may seem a remote figure to many people around the world -- and even to some inside the Vatican.

"Max and Benedict: A Solitary Sparrow Recounts the Pope's Day" was released in Italian and German to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Pope Benedict's election April 19. The book's narrator is a sparrow named Max who nests on St. Peter's dome and eavesdrops from the pope's window ledge.

Illustrated with watercolors, the book's 52 pages contain no startling revelations. But its sympathetic tone and its charming array of details provide a portrait of the pontiff that is largely missing from news coverage.

This is a pope who listens to each of his guests with great attention, who strolls through the Vatican Gardens daily with friends and who, in the evening, enjoys a piece of apple strudel before sitting down to play the piano.

Pope Benedict is timid and reserved by nature, something "that can be mistaken for coldness," our narrator informs us. But in fact, he says, the pope has a subtle sense of humor that surfaces throughout the day.

"He's not the type of person who tells one joke after another, but he sees the amusing aspects of life," according to Max the sparrow.

One point hammered home early in the book is that the pope spends most of his day surrounded by people and is rarely alone. That echoes the words of Pope Benedict himself, who twice in recent weeks has rejected speculation about his supposed isolation and joked about the "myth of my solitude."

This seems to be a message the pope and his aides want to get out.

In 2007, the book's author, Jeanne Perego, wrote a similar account of Pope Benedict's election as seen through the eyes of a cat, with the help of the pope's personal secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein.

The latest book includes a preface by Father Damiano Marzotto, who worked with the pope for 23 years at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"I can say he was a tireless worker, but was above all a likable and cordial person. I hope reading this book will help many people, especially children, to know the pope better," Father Marzotto wrote.

It may in fact be easier for a curious sparrow to track the pope's day than for the thousands of Vatican employees who rarely, if ever, see the pontiff at work. The pope spends most of his time in his apartment or in his adjacent working studio, and access is strictly limited.

The book outlines the pope's average day: He rises at dawn and prays in his private chapel, followed by breakfast. At 8 a.m., he looks at important mail and peruses some daily newspapers, then turns his attention to important documents.

Later in the morning begins a series of private audiences with visiting bishops and cardinals, world dignitaries and various groups. By 1 p.m. the pope is ready for lunch, which is a modest affair, and then he goes up to walk on his private rooftop terrace. (The bird confirms what observers have often noticed: This pope walks quickly.)

At 3 p.m. he's back at his desk, preparing documents and speeches. At 4 o'clock, he takes a brisk afternoon walk with a few aides in the Vatican Gardens where, beneath the chatter of parrots, he prays the rosary and stops briefly at the Grotto of Lourdes at the far end of the gardens.

Then at 5, he returns to his desk to write -- these days, he's working on his upcoming second volume of "Jesus of Nazareth." He stops frequently to pull a book from the shelf of his private library; his books are "his closest friends," the bird tells the reader.

Later in the evening there are occasionally more private audiences with top Vatican officials. Finally, dinner arrives, and the pope can relax a bit. He watches some TV news, reads a book and plays the piano -- "music is his great passion."

The feathered narrator reports that the pope is sometimes baffled by the gifts he receives from visitors and groups, which have included a racing bicycle, a portable pizza oven, a steering wheel from a Formula One race car and a traffic-ticket book.

This is also a pope who loves animals. Presented with four hens at a general audience, the pope now keeps them at his villa outside Rome, where they are presumably safe from culinary dangers.

- - -

Editor's Note: Ignatius Press plans to publish an English-language edition of this book in the fall.


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This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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