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Church Cats 12
In September 2010 the then Pope Benedict XVI made a state visit to Great Britain, during which he visited the Oratory, situated in England's second city, for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who had founded the church in the mid-nineteenth century. After private prayer in Cardinal Newman's room, the pope took the lift downstairs and was greeted by the sound of determined feline mewing!
Pushkin was a black, half-Persian cat who was 10 years old at the time. He had arrived at the Oratory in 2008 with Father Guziel his 'carer and personal assistant', roles he combined with being Parish Priest and then established himself as 'the Oratory cat'. And he wanted to meet the pope! He was even wearing a ribbon in the papal colours of yellow and white. Benedict was a confirmed cat-lover and was delighted to meet Pushkin, enquiring about him, telling him how handsome he was, stroking him and shaking a proffered paw (above). The Vatican TV crew and photographer, who had been on the point of leaving, had to rush back to record the encounter, during which the cat was said to have 'maintained a dignified and prayerful silence'. Following the meeting and the ensuing publicity, Pushkin received plenty of fan mail and was hoping to be on the pope's Christmas-card list! Fr Guziel remarked that the cat had also gained 'hairs and graces'.
Pushkin's story began in 2000 when he was adopted as a kitten by Fr Guziel, who was working at the time as a hospital chaplain near Birmingham. It wasn't long before he had a new position as priest in the parish of Fenton, near the city of Stoke-on-Trent; Pushkin went with him to live in the Presbytery and become Parish Cat, a position he filled for seven years before the move to Birmingham Oratory. In 2011, with the aid of Fr Guziel, he wrote a little book about his life experiences and the papal visit, of course; details are given below. The book has delightful pen-and-ink illustrations by the Carmelite nuns of Wolverhampton (left), and a foreword by another distinguished person who Pushkin counted among his friends: HRH Princess Michael of Kent (right). She met him not long after he had moved to the Oratory when she was visiting for the opening of the shrine to Cardinal Newman. The princess was also a cat-lover and she and Pushkin remained in touch afterwards.
Pushkin's book was launched on 21 November 2011 at the Oratory, with suitable ceremony, the princess as guest of honour, and some hundred or so other guests and friends from both the clergy and the laity. Songs written for the occasion were sung, speeches made and a buffet enjoyed including a very special 'Pushkin cake' (right). The cat himself, of course, was in attendance and enjoyed spending time with his friend the princess again.
Pushkin was still at the Oratory in 2014 and a valued member of the community, taking his duties seriously. These included rigorously inspecting visitors, ensuring the house was in good order and all duties were being properly carried out. If guests were visiting any of the special rooms in the building, such as Cardinal Newman's room or the library, then he would often accompany them to supervise and ensure that the priest who was giving the guided tour was doing so correctly. He emphasised the need for substantial amounts of rest and grooming, with regular exercise up and down the stairs, being highlighted as key parts of maintaining the stamina required for his important role.
An enquiry to the Oratory in 2019 revealed that Pushkin had died in November 2018 aged 19, after suffering from thyroid problems. He was very much missed by all his many friends. There's a nice tribute and obituary at the Catholic Herald (link below), and Pushkin's passing was even noted at Pope Benedict's Facebook page.
Pushkin the Pontifical Cat: Tails of an Oratory Cat, Fr Anton Guziel, Cong. Orat.; St Pauls Publishing, London, 2011, ISBN 978-0-85439-826-3 (see our review in Folios).
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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