By Rev. Dai Morgan
Early in October, one is likely to behold a surprising sight, a procession of animals—dogs, cats, guinea pigs, lizards, boa constrictors, parrots, horses … you name it. Of course, as fantastic as this spectacle might appear, when it becomes apparent that this menagerie is parading off to church, one’s amazement is likely to be even more pronounced.
The purpose of this gathering is a special ceremony, The Blessing of the Animals. This ritual is conducted in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for all creatures. It is usually celebrated on the weekend falling nearest to the feast day of St. Francis (Oct. 4).
In our area, this year, I know of three Blessing of the Animals events. All will take place on Saturday, Oct. 6:
10:30 a.m.—Madonna del Castello Roman Catholic Church, 2021 S. Braddock Ave., Swissvale; 412-271-5666
12 p.m. (noon)—St. Maurice Roman Catholic Church, 2001 Ardmore Blvd., Forest Hills; 412-351-5403
1 p.m.—Living Spirit Ministry-Swissvale United Methodist Church, 7415 Irvine St., Swissvale; 412-351-1802
Francis of Assisi is recognized as a saint by a number of western Christian traditions. He is considered to be the patron saint of animals and ecology.
Francis was born at Assisi in Umbria, Italy, about 1180. He died on Oct. 3, 1226.
Francis of Assisi is also one of the two patron saints of Italy (along with Catherine of Siena), the recognized originator of the Christmas nativity scene and the first person recorded to have experienced the stigmata phenomenon. Francis was so respected and revered in his own lifetime that he was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX, less than two years after his death.
The ceremony of blessing animals celebrates the teaching of St. Francis that living a life of peace includes living in harmony with all God’s creatures, including giving thanks for our domestic pets. In fact, his main theological inspiration came from animals. He viewed them as living examples of spiritual integrity, blessing them and striving to understand and connect with them. His most widely known works are entitled "Canticle to the Creatures" and "Sermon to the Birds." St. Francis said, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men.”
One legend of St. Francis concerns a wolf that was terrorizing the town of Gubbio, by devouring both animals and humans. The entire town was afraid to stray beyond the town walls. However, Francis convinced the people that the wolf’s hunger pains were the cause of his behavior. He met with the wolf, blessed it and said, “Brother Wolf, you have done great harm to this region, not only destroying other creatures without mercy, but you even have the brazenness to kill and devour human beings, made in the image of God. You deserve severe punishment, but I want to make peace between you and the town, so that they will not be harmed by you anymore. After they have forgiven you, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.” The wolf agreed and offered its paw as a sign. St. Francis continued, “I promise that the town will feed you every day. I know that what you did, you did out of hunger.” The town promised to do what the saint had bargained and adopted the wolf and fed him until the day he died.
The bond between human being and pet is a strong one. Pets provide companionship and affection. They can be helpers and workmates. They have even been known to be life-savers. It is no wonder that people value the opportunity to take their animals to church for a special blessing.
These ceremonies are a powerful way to celebrate St. Francis's compassionate appreciation for all creatures—an appreciation that we should all share and an appreciation stemming from the bond of being God’s creations.
Do yourself and your pet a favor; come to one of the Blessings of the Animals services taking place in our area on Oct. 6.
P.S. During these services, please make sure that your animal is leashed or held in a pet carrier.
The Rev. Dai Morgan is pastor of Living Spirit Ministry-Swissvale United Methodist Church.