Pope Benedict XVI pets Pushkin the cat, held by Father Anton Guziel, at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham, England, Sept. 19, 2010. The pope visited the oratory after beatifying Cardinal John Henry Newman. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Like any bona fide cat lover, Pope Benedict XVI’s face would light up and his hand would reach out at the sight of a fluffy feline — even when that soft bundle of fur was a squirming, feisty lion cub brought to the Vatican by visiting circus performers.

His comments about how animals must be respected as “companions in creation” earned him high marks with animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

As cats are known to sense approaching cat lovers, Vatican kitties would apparently swarm around him.

For example, one day after celebrating Mass at a small church near St. Peter’s Basilica, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger went to the church’s cemetery, which was full of cats, Konrad Baumgartner, an eyewitness and theologian, told Knight Ridder in 2005. “They all ran to him. They knew him and loved him.”

A fellow cardinal who worked under the future pope at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith portrayed him as a kind of Dr. Doolittle.

“I tried to understand the language he used with cats, who were always enchanted when they met him. I thought maybe it was a Bavarian dialect, but I don’t know,” Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone told Vatican Radio in 2005.

While the pope never owned a cat, it was reported he fed the strays that lurked around the building he lived in as a cardinal in Rome.

Being pope, however, prevented him from such daily encounters. And yet he kept a white ceramic cat — crouched next to a silver icon of Our Lady — on his large desk in the papal apartments.

He and his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, also collected plates with images of cats.

His love for creatures and nature, the pope said, came from growing up in the Bavarian countryside.

In the small town of Aschau am Inn, his childhood home, “I experienced the beauty of creation,” he said. He would hike and bike the surrounding hills and mountains and play with the many animals his neighbors kept.

“I even herded cows,” which “brought me closer to nature, and it was important for me to have had this first experience with God’s creatures and to bond with animals,” he said.

When he later built a home in Pentling, near Regensburg, he became fast friends with the neighbor’s orange cat, Chico, who often wandered into his garden.

The neighbor, Rupert Hofbauer, said he also had a dog, Igor, who frequented the garden, “but the cardinal prefers Chico. There are dog and cat people in the world, and he is definitely a cat person.”

When Chico’s friend became famous as pope, the German “katz” became the ersatz narrator of a papal biography in the children’s book, “Joseph and Chico: The Life of Pope Benedict XVI as Told by a Cat.”

After the pope’s retirement, living at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican Gardens meant moving to kitty haven.

The good number of friendly, well cared for cats in the area — including Contessina, an often-photographed black-and-white female — meant finally being back among his feline friends.