As autumn arrives, people in various places may notice something odd.
A procession of animals, everything from dogs and cats to hamsters and even horses, is led to churches for a special ceremony called the Blessing of Pets. This custom is conducted in remembrance of Saint Francis of Assisi’s love for all creatures.
Francis, whose feast day is October 4th, loved the larks flying about his hilltop town. He and his early brothers, staying in a small hovel, allowed themselves to be displaced by a donkey.
Francis wrote a Canticle of the Creatures, an ode to God’s living things. “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” And there was testimony in the cause for Saint Clare of Assisi’s canonization that referred to her little cat!
That there are today over 62 million cats in the U.S. attests to the continuing affection we have for our furry, feathered or finned friends. We’ve even had a cat called Socks in the White House. Other popular presidential pets range from Abraham Lincoln’s Fido to Lyndon Johnson’s beagles, named Him and Her.
For single householders, a pet can be a true companion. Many people arrive home from work to find a furry friend overjoyed at their return. Many a senior has a lap filled with a purring fellow creature.
The bond between person and pet is like no other relationship, because the communication between fellow creatures is at its most basic. Eye-to-eye, a man and his dog, or a woman and her cat, are two creatures of love.
No wonder people enjoy the opportunity to take their animal companions to church for a special blessing. Church is the place where the bond of creation is celebrated.
At Franciscan churches, a friar with brown robe and white cord often welcomes each animal with a special prayer. The Blessing of Pets usually goes like this:
“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired Saint Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”
As the prayer is offered, the pet is gently sprinkled with holy water. Believe it or not, most pets receive this sacramental spritz with dignity, though I must admit I have seen some cats flatten their ears a bit as the drops of water lightly pelt them.
But the owner is happy, and who knows what spiritual benefits may result?
Usually the Blessing of Pets is held outdoors. But I remember it rained one year, and all were invited inside St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan. It was quite a sight to see pairs of creatures—one human, one animal—sitting in the pews. The pastor joined right in with his beagle. Noah’s Ark was never like this!
Some people criticize the amount and cost of care given to pets. People are more important, they say. Care for poor people instead of poodles. And certainly our needy fellow humans should not be neglected.
However, I believe every creature is important. The love we give to a pet, and receive from a pet, can draw us more deeply into the larger circle of life, into the wonder of our common relationship to our Creator.
Kevin E. Mackin, O.F.M., is a Franciscan of the Holy Name Province.