Americans love their pets. More than 63 million households have one and the numbers are on the rise. We take our animal companions on walks, to the beach and on family trips. But have you ever taken your pet to church?
October 4th is the feast of St. Francis. On this day, Catholics across the globe carry their pets to church as part of the traditional blessing of the animals.
Franciscan Brother Joseph Wood notes “it is believed that it was not St. Francis, but Anthony of the Desert” who originally began the tradition of animal blessings in the first or second century in Italy. He said it was only centuries later that the Church changed the ritual to the feast of St. Francis.
St. Francis was the wild thing of his town. Born in the 12th century, Francis had worked in his father’s business and fought in a war, but he yearned for a more meaningful life. He sought to model his life on Christ’s instructions to his disciples to live simply and care for God’s creation.
In response to this gospel call, Francis renounced his possessions, stripping naked in the town square to return his clothes to his father. He lived like a beggar and communed with animals. Today, this behavior might simply be written off as the actions of a disturbed homeless person but for Francis, it was a spiritual conversion.
Francis’ family disowned him. Townspeople shunned him. But the rest of Italy loved him. Soon, 5,000 men had joined Francis in his way of life. Clare, daughter of a wealthy family in Assisi, ran away to join Francis and began the order of Poor Clares. And, for the first time in years, a renewal in the church was born that called the Church back to its gospel roots.
It could not have come at a better time. In the 13th century, the Catholic Church seemed stuck in a cycle of crusades and corrupt religious leaders who distanced themselves from the poor. Francis’ model of poverty and social engagement with the marginalized of society was a radical break from those deemed more holy than he. But only two years after his death, the tables turned and Francis was made a saint. Today he is known as the patron saint of, among other things, animals, environmentalism, and, ever-so-popularly, birds.
Loving the Birds and the Bees
Though statues of St. Francis with birds adorn Catholic gardens throughout the world it would be a mistake to reduce him to being a sentimentalist nature-lover. In fact, Francis’ love for nature derived from a deep sense of God’s presence in all of creation and the gospel call to care for everyone, particularly the least among us.
Although the blessing of the animals on the feast of St. Francis has been celebrated for centuries, Lynn Caruso, author of Blessing the Animals, notes that this ritual is needed now more than ever. “We live in a fast-paced technological age that often separates us from one another and certainly from God’s creation,” she remarks. “Blessing an animal is a gesture that celebrates the divine presence in all of creation.”
In a time when there are a growing number of endangered or extinct animals, the ritual reminds us to explore “our interconnectedness with all of creation” and charges us “to be better stewards of our planet and its inhabitants.”
And blessing the animals is not a one-way ritual. “When we honor animals, and recognize them as members of God’s awesome creation,” Caruso says, “we are drawn closer to both the Creator and created.” In its essence, the blessing of the animals is not only a blessing for Rover, but, essentially, a blessing for all creation, including ourselves.