Franciscan Spirit Blog

Blessing Our Pets in the Spirit of St. Francis

I hear of many churches conducting pet blessing ceremonies throughout October. Why is this done and what’s involved?

In autumn, people in various places may notice a procession of animals—from dogs and cats to hamsters and even horses—being led to churches for a special ceremony called the Blessing of Pets. This custom is conducted in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for all creatures.

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 are two creatures of love. No wonder people enjoy taking their animal companions to church for a blessing. Church is the place where the bond of creation is celebrated.

Franciscan Father Jack Wintz visited the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan in 2002 for “one of the most spectacular animal blessings and celebrations of St. Francis of Assisi on the planet.”

He wrote of the ceremony: “On that Sunday of October, this immense cathedral, over 600 feet in length, is transformed into the lost Garden of Paradise. There, for several glorious hours, over 3,500 men, women, and children—with dogs, cats, gerbils, turtles, and other pets at their sides—worship and praise their loving Creator in the spirit of St. Francis.

“The Right Rev. Mark S. Sisk presides over the ceremonies. Immediately after a festive, two-hour celebration of the Eucharist, the great bronze doors of the cathedral swing open. A procession of larger and more exotic animals, including a large camel, two llamas, a ram, a full-grown bull, a man carrying a boa constrictor, and a woman holding a big blue-gold macaw, with their caretakers, moves rather silently down the center aisle.

“The animals come to the main altar to receive the bishop’s blessing. ‘Live without fear,’ Bishop Sisk announces. ‘Your Creator loves you, made you holy, and has always protected you. Go in peace to follow the good road and may God’s blessing be with you always. Amen.’”

Most pet blessings aren’t this elaborate, but the inspiration behind them is the same: a blessing acknowledges our awareness that our love for our pets can teach us something about God’s love for us.

St. Francis’ Love for Creation

If you’ve only heard of one saint, chances are it is St. Francis of Assisi. His international popularity hasn’t waned in 800 years. In fact, if Francis were a man born ahead of his time, in many ways his time is now. His profound love of all created things was the source of his reputation as an animal lover and one reason why, in 1979, Pope John Paul II declared him the patron saint of ecology.

One story tells of Francis stopping in a field to preach to the birds. They gathered around him and kept silent while he spoke. They burst into song when he urged them to praise God. Francis called them “my little sisters” and told his followers to imitate the birds in their joy, their humility, and their trust in providence.

Serious illness following a disastrous attempt to become a knight brought the young Francis to see the emptiness of his frolicking life as leader of Assisi’s youth. From the cross in the neglected field chapel of San Damiano, Christ told him, “Francis, go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down.”

Francis became a poor and humble workman. He gave up all his possessions, piling even his clothes before his earthly father (who was demanding restitution for Francis’ “gifts” to the poor) so that he would be totally free to say, “Our Father in heaven.”

A Man for All Seasons

Long before sorting your recyclables was in vogue, Francis had a deep connection with the earth. He saw himself as just one part of creation. The earth and the air, fire and water, birds and beasts were his brothers and sisters, not mere objects to be dominated, tolerated, or ignored. God created the world, and Francis saw that it was very good.

The U.S. bishops praised Francis in their document Renewing the Earth.

“Safeguarding creation requires us to live responsibly in it, rather than managing creation as though we are outside it,” they wrote. Francis had that insight long before climate change became a catchphrase. Francis also was a man of peace. In a time of holy wars, he set out to win glory as a martyr. Instead, he met with a Muslim sultan whose faith was so sincere that Francis dismissed the popular idea that Christians had a monopoly on earnestly seeking God. It was a startling message for his time, and no less startling for ours.

During the last years of his relatively short life (he died at 44), he was half-blind and seriously ill. On his deathbed, he said over and over again the last addition to his Canticle of the Creatures: “Be praised, O Lord, for our Sister Death.” Even bodily death, for Francis, was something for which to be thankful.

Do-It-Yourself Pet Blessing

Scripture: Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.
(Luke 12:6)

Pray: Lord, you have shown us affection and faithfulness through all of creation. We are thankful for the laughter and joy that ________ has given us. Help us to share kindness and care with all living things, to be stewards of all creation. We take up this cup, grateful for having been entrusted with the care of this creature. We marvel at how you have fashioned and formed our world in harmony and peace. Amen.

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