Jon M. Sweeney has combined his love for cats with his affinity for Catholicism and knack for writing into a series of books for children about a pope and the cat he rescues and keeps as a pet in Vatican City. On Feb. 8, just after the end of Catholic Schools Week, Sweeney joined the community at Good Shepherd School in Perryville, Md., to discuss the series, writing and storytelling, and a few other topics.
From his home in Milwaukee, Sweeney said he created “The Pope’s Cat” — the first of a series of now includes four books — because he “loves being Catholic” and he wanted to find a creative way to speak about that. He also loves cats. His family has two, Martin and Rosa. During the hour he spent with the students, Rosa made a few appearances on her owner’s lap.
His fictional pope goes for a walk one morning on the streets of Rome shortly after his installation, and there he finds a stray who lives on the city’s streets. The pontiff takes the cat back to the Vatican tucked inside his cassock and names her Margaret.
On his refrigerator, Sweeney has a magnet with a photo of Pope Francis. It occurred to him that we really don’t know much about the pope and what he worries about or thinks about, what his interests are, etc.
“They have an extraordinary job, a unique job, unlike any other. But they’re human beings. They have the same kinds of emotions and struggles that any of us have,” Sweeney said.
“The Pope’s Cat” and the following volumes are a look at the everyday life of a pope.
The other books are “Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s: A Christmas Story,” “Margaret’s First Holy Week” and “Margaret and the Pope Go to Assisi.” A fifth book will be published late in 2021. The fifth book will cover Margaret’s first conclave. It is a prequel to the series, and it turns out that the cat was at the Sistine Chapel when the pope who eventually adopted her was elected, Sweeney said.
“These actually are the only books I’ve written for children,” he said.
Sweeney spent about half of his time taking questions from the students and teachers. A student asked if “The Pope’s Cat” is a true story. The answer was no, but that doesn’t mean actual events could not come into play.
“They often have a lot to do with what you think and feel in real life,” he said.
Sweeney said he doesn’t know if Pope Francis has a cat. He has not met the pope.
“I would like to, though. I do know that he has a copy of this book, though. A friend of mine is a reporter in Rome, and he gave it to him,” he said.
He was asked about his writing process. Sweeney said he normally needs three months to compose each of his children’s books. The text goes through several revisions before it is finalized. The illustrator – in Sweeney’s case, it’s a Seattle-based man named Ron DeLeon – needs time to create the art that will go along with the words. The books need to be designed, printed and distributed.
“There’s a process to writing a book, and sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes, it might take a year, but sometimes it’s much quicker than that,” he said.
A teacher asked him how he feels when told that revisions are necessary. Sweeney, who is also an editor, said it’s difficult, but he understands.
“I have learned from doing this a lot of times that the person who helps you with your vision … they are doing that for your benefit, and the result is that the writing, the story becomes much, much better,” he said. “I realize that the things they are suggesting are really good ideas. The process of revision makes the story better.”