Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Animal House of Worship

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Animal House of Worship

Article excerpt

Every year, like clockwork, my dogs receive a blessing on October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The warranty on the blessing doesn't wear out, but I don't want to take any chances on any of my charges. Neither do my fellow parishioners, as the Blessing of the Animals is a big deal in our parish. Everyone seemingly has a critter dependent upon him or her.

This year my parish welcomed a huge collection of cats in crates, dogs on leashes, and hamsters as far as the eye could see. And for those paying particularly close attention, there was one lonely snail named Gary, after a character on SpongeBob SquarePants. There were enormous dogs that could have easily been mistaken for not-so-small horses and tiny teacup varieties that could have fit four to a saucer, all eagerly awaiting their annual blessing.

The blessing also attracted a clowder of cats, a bale of turtles, a knot of snakes, a company of parrots, a horde of hamsters, a group of guinea pigs, and a glint of goldfish blissfully adrift in their fishbowl. Several police officers mounted on their trusty steeds towered over the assembled crowd, dutifully waiting their turn. After all, the horses need a blessing, too.

The dogs were curious and the cats were cautious, but there were no reported instances of interspecies violence. After all, St. Francis represents peace and balance in the environment. He composed the "Canticle of the Creatures," tamed wolves, preached to birds, and sought solace in the countryside. He once gave up his bed so a donkey could rest instead. It's natural that we, as believing Christians, ask for his protection over the furry, scaled, and feathered loved ones in our families.

For St. Francis, every creature--that is, everything that God created--was sacred. The sun, the moon, birds, humans, butterflies, and even rabid wolves were a part of God's plan and a sign of God's love. German philosopher Max Scheler once commented on St. Francis' love of creation by saying, "Where the modern cynic sees something 'buglike' in everything that exists, St. Francis saw even in a bug the sacredness of life."

The Catholic custom of pet blessings originated from early Christians who lived close to the soil and nature. They were farmers whose livelihoods depended upon the health of their animals. Thus early Christians would seek out the desert fathers to bless their charges. That's why Italian Christians have their animals blessed twice a year, once on St. Francis of Assisi's feast day and again on January 17, the feast of St. Anthony of Egypt--the monk who established the Christian monastic tradition.

The blessing of the animals is one of the few Christian celebrations that transcends denominational boundaries. Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, among other Christians, participate in the festivities. Jewish communities, too, will often bless their farm and companion animals during a ceremony known as the Simchat Noach. The latter custom didn't extend to or influence the Catholic community but rather existed alongside it.

When the ceremony at my parish began, a respectful hush fell over the creatures in the churchyard. There, under Brother Sun, with hair and fur being ruffled by Brothers Wind and Air, the congregation--both two- and four-legged--were blessed by Sister Water. …

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