WASHINGTON - Those uninterested in the news coverage of Pope Francis' U.S. visit might have ditched the front page and turned to other sections of the newspaper for a break.
Patrick McDonnell, creator of the "Mutts" comic strip that appears in 700 newspapers, used the week of Sept. 21 -- the week of the papal visit -- to feature seven quotations from Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si'."
The reception was terrific, according to McDonnell, a Catholic born on St. Patrick's Day in 1956.
"We posted the cartoons on our Facebook page. We just had an amazing response, a phenomenal response of people reading it and enjoying it," McDonnell told Catholic News Service in an Oct. 2 telephone interview. "The people that run my Facebook page said it was one of the most successful as far as getting people liking and responding."
Nor did McDonnell get much pushback from his editors at King Features Syndicate about the source of the quotations. "Actually, none at all," he said.
How did such a pairing come about?
"Right off the bat, when he first became pope and he took the name Francis after St. Francis -- St. Francis being the patron saint of animals and obviously that was very important to me -- I was interested in him," McDonnell said. "I think that if remember right, there were little stories with him telling a boy that his dog would be in heaven. There were definitely hints of what was going to come," he added.
"My wife's (Karen O'Connell) a big fan (of Pope Francis), and she actually read it ('Laudato Si'') first," McDonnell said. "I was always going to read it, but she said, 'You should read this and maybe we can get something out together on this." McDonnell noted that while his wife's name isn't on the strip, "my wife is obviously a very big part of the 'Mutts' world. She gives me great feedback. She sees everything I do."
After reading "Laudato Si'" for himself, "I was so impressed. That was powerful stuff about animals and the environment. In 'Mutts' a lot of the time, I illustrate them and I just thought that paper (encyclical) was filled with wonderful thoughts about animals and I thought of all the things I could do. And I thought, 'I don't know how much of the public might have read that paper.'" And with Pope Francis' pending journey to the United States, the time seemed ripe for McDonnell to use quotes from the encyclical.
He found "Laudato Si'" so rich with material, McDonnell told CNS, "I probably could have done three months of quotes. I realize I had such a wealth I thought a week would be good. So I decided ... after reading that and seeing his thoughts there, that I would do it. It was a joy for me."
He noted there are a couple of things he has yet to do in "Mutts," and he thinks he'll get to them eventually. The first order of business is to "free the guard dog, and I'm definitely going to do that someday soon," McDonnell said. The other is to actually show the object of Mooch the cat's unrequited love, Schnelly. "I feel I'm going to have to put Schnelly in there. I guess I should show Schnelly someday," he added.
McDonnell has been doing "Mutts" for 20 years. Asked if he'd like to see the strip continue after he retires or dies, he replied, "I hope there's still newspapers around!"
He said he splits his time 50-50 between the strip and other projects such as charitable work, especially with animal advocacy organizations. "Animals are fellow souls on the planet and we should keep good care of them," he added.
Another way McDonnell uses his non-"Mutts" time is by illustrating other books. He said he is thinking about illustrating a book entirely based on quotations from "Laudato Si'" based on the material he highlighted in the encyclical, although there's no word yet whether Mooch or Earl, the dog from "Mutts," would put in appearances in such a volume.
Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.