MONDAY, OCTOBER 4: If you’ve been looking for an excuse to spend a lazy afternoon enjoying your pet, here’s some good news: Today’s your day!
In honor of the saint who is patron of animals and the environment, Christians around the world observe the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. (Catholic.org has more.) St. Francis’ feast has been around for centuries, but the widespread popularity of pet blessings is more recent. Lots of churches will be throwing their doors open to both humans and their beloved, non-human family members today—all because of this Catholic saint.
Before you pack up your pooch, however, here’s an important disclaimer: A search of listings for pet blessings across the U.S. shows that some churches began this autumn ritual in September. Many hosted pet blessings this past weekend. Yes, many churches will bless pets today—and some will host blessings later this autumn. But, make sure to check with churches before showing up leash in hand.
A More Secular Approach: World Animal Day
Do you have to be “religious” to honor your pet today? No, in fact, for nearly 80 years World Animal Day has taken a more secular approach to celebrating creatures near and dear to us. Here’s a brief Wikipedia entry on that observance’s history, and here’s the official World Animal Day website.
OR, if you want to organize your own pet blessing, the Humane Society nationally offers lots of spiritual resources. Here’s a page packed with great recommendations on blessings from the Humane Society.
The Story of St. Francis
Francis of Assisi was born in the 12th century, and was baptized in honor of St. John the Baptist; Francis’ mother hoped he would become a great religious leader. (For a detailed biography, visit the Global Catholic Network.) Although born into wealth, Francis soon became unsatisfied with his shallow life. After enduring military captivity and a serious illness, Francis experienced a vision and was led to a spiritual life. His old friends mocked him and father beat him, but Francis sought solitude in hopes of enlightenment and began to assist the poor and diseased. Finally, Francis cut all ties with his father and lived as a beggar, preaching around the countryside and gathering followers to what would eventually become the Franciscans.
So where, exactly, do the animals fit into Francis’ story? Francis believed in following the Gospel precisely, and he regarded all animals and natural elements as his brothers and sisters.
Some accounts even report that he preached to animals! During the Advent season around 1220, Francis created the first living Nativity scene, in hopes that people would be able to use their senses to understand the birth of Jesus on a more connective level. This saint preached the practice of peace, and would strive to live in harmony with all of God’s creation. (Wikipedia has more.) Because of his own writings and those of his followers, more is known about St. Francis than any other Medieval-era saint.
Do Animals Go to Heaven?
It turns out that theologians have been asking this question for hundreds of years and Catholics are not alone in defending the heavenly place of animals in God’s Creation. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, preached a famous sermon on this point centuries ago. Although Wesley’s language is a bit archaic, mainline Proestants may be surprised to learn what Wesley taught on this point.
To connect all of these themes, the Humane Society has created “St. Francis in a Box!” for the 21st century Church, to help faith communities better understand St. Francis, pets and the complex relationship with animals. With materials like The Green Bible, a documentary and “The Gospel According to the Earth,” The Humane Society reports hopes to encourage small group discussions, film screenings and more.