THE POPE AND THE HOMELESS CATS: John Paul II Had a Dream
by J.R. Hyland
The first time I read the account of Pope John Paul II’s dream, the thing that surprised me most was the fact that it was included in the book God’s Broker. Published in 1984, the book was the result of 200 hours of conversation with the Pope. These interviews began soon after the author, Anton Gronowicz, was introduced to the Pope in 1979 and continued for two years, in the Pontiff’’s apartment at the Vatican.
An American citizen of Polish descent, Gronowicz was the longtime friend of many highly place [clergypeople]. And in the prologue to his book, he explains how he was able to circumvent Vatican bureaucracy. "Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Primate of Poland, introduced me to the Pope, acquainted me with Vatican circles, and convinced the Holy Father that he should bypass the Vatican Department of State and grant me private interviews."
Subtitled The Life of John Paul II as Told in His Own Words, the subject matter of the book ranges from reminiscences of the time when the Pope was known as Karol Wojtyla, a young man living under the Nazi occupation of Poland, to his reflections on social justice issues, theology, and church doctrine. And in the midst of these human-centered concerns, the author devotes four pages to a dream the Pope related to him, about a homeless cat.
This surprising interpolation might lead to the conclusion that the author understood the significance of the dream: that he was sensitive to the plight of God’s other creatures and the way they are abused. But the comments he makes as the Pontiff relates his dream indicate he had little understanding of the implications of what he was being told. But from the way in which this dream preserved its vigor and immediacy so many years later, it is obvious that it was very important to John Paul and [that] he fully understood its implications.
In his dream, John Paul follows a homeless mother cat who was trying to find food and shelter for herself and her kittens. She is turned away by those who lack nothing themselves and by men who represent the various faces of established Christianity.
The dream took place in 1969 the night before the Pope, known then as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, was to visit New York City for the first time. It was late summer and he had been touring Canada. He spoke of the beauty of its fields and forests and how he had wished for more time to walk in woods vibrant with color and with his "ears filled with the songs and voices of animals."
In the midst of this discussion of Canada, the Pope abruptly changed the subject and said: "The night before my departure from Canada to New York, which I had never seen, I had a strange dream." But his dream was not of beautiful forests, warm with the summer sun. It was of a crowded city, frigid with the cold of a northern winter. And although he had never been there, his dream captured the way Manhattan looks and feels after a major snowstorm.
"It was a terribly severe winter in New York; the city was completely covered with snow. Inhabitants were well off and warmly dressed and walking slowly along roads because cars, due to mountains of snow, could not be operated. I was happy that I could walk on top of the snow on avenues of white.
"All my physical effort was spent on walking. To this day, pictures of huge apartment houses on both sides of the avenue are instilled in my mind and the doormen quickly closing and opening entrance doors as though trying to prevent humanity and warmth from escaping.
"On top of the snow, I noticed a brown cat emerge from a side street and walk on the snow. I looked closer and, to my surprise, saw that this big cat was being followed by six small brown-and-white kittens, all of them following the big brown cat in a perfect line. The mother cat looked back from time to time to see if her babies were there, but her main concern was to reach the entrance door. I presumed she was trying to find warmth for herself and her children, but as soon as she reached the door, a man in a well-pressed uniform jumped at her with a broom and chased them away. I followed this procession and prepared to deliver a speech to the doorman. I opened my mouth and tried to complain, ‘Where is your proverbial American generosity? Where is your American good heart and fair play? Let them in. Let them in!!’
"I tried to speak, but the words would not come out. Maybe I was afraid of the doorman with the broom. I started searching my cassock pockets for a piece of bread, found some crumbs, and put them on my palms, calling, ‘Kitty, kitty, kitty.’ But the words would not come from my supposedly intelligent mouth. Instead, the wind blew the crumbs from my palm, and I said, ‘What can I do? I can’’t speak to the cats. I can’t speak to the doorman. But there are many hungry birds. They might pick up the crumbs.’
"Again, I walked after the cats, now with a pain in my chest, feeling tremendous cold. On the left, I saw a church building and thought, ‘There we will find help.’ I heard singing, and again, the idea occurred to me that it must be a Catholic church. The music grew louder, as though trying to convince God that they were praying to Him.
"The mother cat jumped in front of me and climbed the stairs, followed by her kittens. I raised my head and saw a tall Jesuit priest chasing the cats off the steps. But as I was about to shout at the Jesuit, ‘I am a cardinal!’ and give an order to accept the cats, the mother cat and her offspring ran behind the church because from there came the appetizing aroma of food. Probably there was a kitchen there. But a second Jesuit appeared at the kitchen door and scared the cats away. They returned to the avenue and started walking north.
"They walked on the same side of the avenue as the Jesuit church and I followed. Then they reached an imposing red brick church. An Anglican bishop appeared and said to the cats, ‘My dear animal children, please go immediately to the animal shelter. There is food for you there. We Anglican clergy donate lots of money to the animal shelter every year at Christmastime.’
"The mother cat and her kittens didn’t even meow. They knew the authoritative voice of the Anglican bishop. They walked uptown and gradually the luxurious buildings disappeared, together with the doormen, and we saw drab dilapidated apartments.
"As they walked and the buildings grew shabbier and dirty, a door was opened, not by a doorman but by an old wrinkled woman in a cotton dress. [She saw the cats] and shouted, ‘Oh, little mother,’ and when she opened her mouth, I saw she had few teeth. She gently ushered the mother cat and kittens inside, who jumped happily about because the warmth of the house embraced them."
The narrative ended as the cats found a safe haven with the woman who had little enough, herself. When the Pope concluded his dream, the author to whom he related it did not make any comment on what had been said. But he did write that "I had never seen such a sad expression on the face of this man." Considering that this was the same man who had related the horrors of his young manhood under Nazi occupation, the author’s remark shows the deep impact this dream had on the Pope.
If the Pontiff offered a commentary on his dream, Anton Gronowicz does not share it with the reader. But we are told that John Paul began to recite the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love ..., where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.
Many years after Cardinal Wojtyla had his dream and had become Pope John Paul II, he made a pilgrimage to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis. In the Message of Reconciliation he delivered there, the Pontiff spoke of the Saint’s love for animal, as well as human, beings. And he likened that inclusive love to an anticipation of the Peaceable Kingdom, envisioned by the Prophet Isaiah, a world in which all God’s creatures will live in peace with each other.
The Pope also said that the "solicitous care, not only toward [people] but also toward animals and nature in general," that St. Francis demonstrated is "a faithful echo of the love with which God in the beginning pronounced his ‘fiat,’ which brought them into existence." And, the Pope added, "[W]e, too, are called to a similar attitude."
Some who read these remarks are surprised to find in them such strong support of God’s other creatures. They are surprised to hear the Pope refer to the lives of animals as a manifestation of God’s love: lives that deserve our "solicitous care." But I was not surprised. By the time I came across a copy of the message he gave at Assisi, I had read God’s Broker and the lengthy account of the Pope’s dream. And I knew that if John Paul II had not wanted this very revealing dream to be published, it would never have appeared in print.
So in spite of the policies and pronouncements of [religious people] of the same or other persuasions, who try to denigrate the value and the importance of the lives of God’s other creatures, we know that John Paul II had a dream. And although [people] of lesser vision and lesser spiritual development have closed their hearts and their minds to the needs of other creatures, John Paul has given witness to a need for the "solicitous care, not only of [people], but of animals."
In this witness, the Pope is being true to the Gospel message in which Jesus also gave witness to the need for the solicitous care of all beings: "I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me." (Matthew 25:45)