Early each October, churches of various denominations – predominantly Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran – open their doors to all creatures great and small to honor St. Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181-1226), the patron saint of animals. St. Frances is universally recognized as their spiritual protector and is remembered with a service known simply as the “Blessing of the Animals.”
Curious about this ceremony, I contacted some clergy around the country who celebrate this ritual.
“The ceremony is intended to reconnect people with the importance of animals in their lives and in God’s plan of creation,” says Fr. Tim Goldrick, from St. Bernard Catholic Church in Freetown, Mass. “Besides, it’s fun!”
Fr. Tim remembers a dog from past years who returned again several years ago, but this time in an urn. “Seems he died of old age and was cremated,” he says. “Maybe I said the wrong prayer last time!”
From coast to coast, the furry congregations are comprised mostly of dogs and cats, but fish, snakes, rabbits, horses, goats, and birds are commonly brought in by devoted owners.
During his 14 years at New York City’s St. John the Divine, Canon Charles Pridemore says he has presided over some big services with equally big visitors, including elephants and camels.
Along these lines, Director of Liturgy Johan van Parys at St. Mary’s Basilica, Minn., has also experienced some animal super-sizing. “Several years ago, we had a yak walk down the center aisle of the church during the parade of animals to begin the ceremony,” he recalled of his woolly visitor.
While some churches prefer to hold an informal animal blessing outdoors, Rev. June Wilkins at St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Tx., welcomes animals in the pews. Although the potential for mayhem and murder may seem inevitable when natural mortal enemies are thrust closely together, she says few instances of chaos have occurred. “We have had no accidents, the barking is at a minimum, and there have been no fights,” she says. “They are better behaved than some of the humans!”
“It never ceases to amaze me that the animals seem to put aside inter-species issues,” adds Geoffrey Brown, Vestry Clerk at Trinity Episcopal Church, Lime Rock, Conn., who has seen all the animals remain tranquil throughout their services.
However, Rev. Richard Laribee, of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Highland, Md., has a bone to pick about claims of saintly animal behavior during the ceremony. “I think that’s an urban legend!” he says. “We’ve had to remove some dogs who were barking so loudly we couldn’t hear ourselves sing.”
And occasionally, the non-human ‘parishioners’ have behaved like, well, animals.
On the West Coast, Father Hartshorn Murphy at St. Augustine by-the-Sea Episcopal Church always welcomes the Santa Monica mounted police unit each year. But during one ceremony, he was on the verge of drafting them for a search and rescue mission.
“A little girl panicked because she thought her hamster – ‘Elvis’ – had escaped his cage,” says Fr. Murphy. And with a very well-satisfied looking snake also in attendance, people began to fear that temptation had got the better of the serpent.
It seems, however, that Elvis was just ‘all shook up’ at the sight of the reptile, for he was eventually discovered cowering beneath a pile of wood shavings in his cage.
Then too, there’s always the odd unruly heckler not yet touched by the Holy Spirit. Over the years, says Steven Rottgers of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Trussville, Ala., he has blessed his fair share of goats, ducks, gerbils, alligators, pigs and even a piranha. But during one service it was necessary to seek repentance for a very vocal myna bird. “The previous owners had taught the bird to cuss!” he says.
Despite the occasional fall from grace, most critters seem to put their best foot, hoof or claw forward as they receive their blessing, and most ministers said they see the service gaining popularity in their communities.
“I hope we are seeing a movement toward the stewardship of creation, conservation of endangered species, and care for the animal kingdom,” says Rev. Rottgers. “It’s a way to also show how animals are part of our life as family.”
Thomas' features have appeared in more than 200 magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org