Updated: September 8, 2014
Thousands of animals will fill churches and cathedrals across this country in coming days as congregations hold services to bless them in honor of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic patron saint of animals.
Dogs, cats, reptiles, birds, horses and species of all kinds will receive special blessings in keeping with the spirit of the 13th century founder of the Franciscan order, whose life is celebrated on Oct. 4 every year.
St. Francis, renowned for his gentleness and humility, was known to have a special devotion toward the animal kingdom. Using real animals, he created the tradition of the Christmas nativity scene, and, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he urged the enactment of a law that would have required people to provide "for the birds and the beasts, as well as for the poor, so that all might have occasion to rejoice in the Lord." By legend, animals flocked to him, birds fluttering overhead as he preached.
Thousands of Pets Expected at Cathedral of St. John the Divine
The largest of these Blessing of the Animals ceremonies will be held Sunday Oct. 5, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church in New York City. Nearly 5,000 people and pets are expected to throng the grounds of the cathedral, which is the world's largest, to participate in its annual blessing.
Last year, an eagle led a processional that will also include llamas, scorpions, tortoises and snakes. The eagle replaced an elephant that had long done the duty but, sadly, passed away. In the past, St. John's clergy has blessed everything from turkey vultures to algae to a 3.5 million year-old Australian fossil.
The procession's organizers don't know which animal will be chosen to lead until the last minute.
Pet Blessing Is Popular Event
Why is this event so popular? "A pet is very important in our lives and this is a way of showing it," says Mary Bloom, the ceremony's coordinator. "By bringing animals into a place that is normally off-limits, it's a way of giving them status and sharing our love of God with them. Also, the event brings people together who share a common interest - the respect and love of animals."
Countless churches will hold similar ceremonies or simply offer prayers for animals in services surrounding the Feast of St. Francis. If you are interested in participating, contact houses of worship in your area. And remember that devotion to animals in not limited to any particular religion. In fact, it is common to many faiths.
Shin Buddhist children, for example, recite a prayer that says, "I will try to be kind and gentle to every living thing and protect all who are weaker than myself." And the Muslim faith includes a parable of a thirsty man who goes out of his way to provide water to thirsty dog and finds that "there is a reward for serving any animate living creature." (To read these and other prayers, including the Franciscan Animal Blessing and Prayer for Sick Animals, click the related article at the right.)
The ceremony at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will include a service and a processional of animals to the altar to be blessed by Cathedral clergy.
You can make online pass reservations starting on September 2nd. The service begins at 11 a.m., but many participants line up several hours early. For more information call the cathedral box office at 212-662-2133.