The conclave bird: a distinctively Roman omen

I never thought I'd have the chance to say this, but we need to bring back the official Roman augurs. A dramatic bird omen has just occurred: the conclave seagull atop the chimney.

Better informed than any journalist in the Roman world, the flight of birds has always been pregnant with meaning. As somewhat of an expert in ancient Roman divination myself (as scholar, not practitioner), here's my best take. The white bird signals white smoke later today. We are probably meant to associate this with the most famous bird omen in papal history, the election of Pope Fabian (236-250). According to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 6.29), Fabianus was not among the likely papabili, but the Holy Spirit moved:

... Fabianus, although present, was in the mind of none. But they relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Savior in the form of a dove. Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.

Our seagull could not get into the building, but came as close as it could. Its species and connection to Fabian likely indicate the election inside of an unexpected candidate from a maritime region. Among other deeds, Fabian was said to have improved the organization of the church in Rome: a curial reformer!Remembered fondly by those who knew him, Pope Fabian was martyred under the first general persecution in 250.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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