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Feast of St. Francis Draws Animals to Church

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Patricia Adamo has been bringing Elliot, her Jack Russell terrier, to St. Christopher's Church in Staten Island, N.Y., for a special pet blessing on the Feast of St. Francis every year since his birth 11 years ago.

She's hardly alone. A crowd of owners with their animals - dogs, cats, rabbits, birds - stand with her, faithfully waiting for a sprinkling of holy water and a solemn prayer to sanctify the pets, a reminder of the journey back to God.

"My dog is a member of the family," Adamo said. "Getting him blessed makes me feel comfortable that he has that extra guardian angel to make him safe from an illness or mishap."

On Oct. 4, all across the country in Catholic parishes and universities,  animals and their owners come to receive a blessing from an ordained man of the church. They bring hamsters, fish in bowls, lizards in shoe boxes poked with holes, and even stuffed teddy bears missing a button eye.

Who is St. Francis?

Born to wealth in the 12th century, Giovanni Francesco Bernardone renounced materialism and converted to a life of spirituality, living outdoors and embracing poverty and humility.

In one famously memorable instance, he attempted to preach the gospel to people, but nearby birds squawked and chirped so loudly, he couldn't be heard over the din. He asked the birds to be quiet, and miraculously they became silent, seemingly mesmerized.

Stories accumulated about his exceptional affinity for animals, and were recorded in several biographies, including the first one written by Thomas of Celano, a contemporary of St. Francis. On one occasion, St. Francis rescued a rabbit from a snare, and the rabbit stayed in his lap until he requested a friend to bring it to the forest. At another instance, he tamed a ferocious wolf terrorizing the town of Gubio, Italy.

Yet another time, he unhooked a fish from a pole, urging it to swim away, but the fish stayed close by the boat until he finished his prayer. He felt sorry for lambs going to market, and would find benefactors to purchase them to spare them from slaughter. He did this in memory of the Lamb of God who was slain, a ubiquitous metaphor in the Church for Jesus Christ crucified.

A feast for the beast

At the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, pets are blessed outside an exact replica of the Portiuncula Chapel that St. Francis rebuilt in Assisi, Italy. The blessing is part of a daylong celebration on Oct. 4 to mark the life of the patron of their university.

"In blessing, we're acknowledging that creation isn't a prison, but a cathedral of worship to God, that creatures and nature can lead us to transcendence," said Father Daniel Pattee, director of the graduate theology department at the Franciscan University. "Animals are our friends and companions, and we want to have them blessed. It's a way to have God smile on the animals."

While Catholics bless many items - boats, cars, jewelry, bread, throats, Bibles - animal blessings became strongly associated with the feast day of St. Francis. It has even been reported that non-Catholics bring their animals for a blessing because it is such a unique and uplifting tradition.

"Animals are such a godsend to humans. They are really gifts of love from above," Adamo said. "They provide us comfort and help in major ways - such as search and rescue, seeing-eye and hearing dogs, therapy dogs who help in classroom settings for children with learning disabilities, and dogs who can sniff out oncoming seizures and cancer cells. Why not get them blessed?"

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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