On the first weekend in October you might see an unusual sight outside your local Catholic church. On the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, a number of churches will offer a “Blessing of Animals” prayer service. You may see dogs, cats, gerbils, parrots, or a pony arrayed in all their splendor on the steps and in the parking lot. One such event will take place outside of (name your church and its location). What a crazy and joyous display to celebrate the patron saint of ecology! But some may wonder why someone would bring his or her pet to be blessed.
When Catholic Christians offer a blessing it is our prayerful way of acknowledging something good and beautiful created by God. For example, when my sister kisses her two-year-old daughter goodnight, she blesses her child, perhaps making the traditional sign of the cross on little Victoria’s forehead and murmuring a prayer of gratitude. The blessing that my sister gives to her child is not magic; rather, it is a sign of love and affection. Such a gesture acknowledges and celebrates that which is already present: “This child is a gift from God and I am grateful for her.”
When we bring our pets and animals for a blessing it is because we want to acknowledge prayerfully that they are special to us, that they enrich our lives. We want to thank God for their friendship and beauty, how they make us laugh or feel loved or help us in our work. We ask God to keep them in good health, so that they may continue wagging their tails or happily chirruping when they see us.
But there is another important reason why the Feast of Saint Francis and the blessing of animals are important to us.It serves as a reminder to us that the animals-and all living plants and creatures who are members of the Earth’s community-belong first and foremost to God. Their worth extends far beyond a mere commodity value that we humans ascribe to them. The diverse creatures reflect in their own unique and unrepeatable ways the goodness and beauty of the Divine Creator. Additionally, in this time of unprecedented ecological collapse, the Christian tradition holds up the vision of the natural world as it is being drawn by God toward a promise of a future fulfillment. All of us-humans, animals, plants, the whole created community-are being drawn into the heart of God.
Yet, all too often, our human habits wreak havoc on God’s earth, threatening the survival of countless species.Instead of tending God’s garden with love and justice rather, we exploit it with greed and unrestrained consumption. The blessing of the animals also reminds us that we are part of the earth’s community of life, and that we share the common origin in God and sacred cosmic destiny.
With God’s blessing to strengthen us, we can embrace a solidarity with other species and work to ensure the survival of the earth’s natural diversity. According to Dr. James Hansen, a renowned climate scientist, if the global average temperature increases up to 3°C in the 21st century, then as much as 60 percent of existing species could face extinction. If left unchecked, by 2100, the average U.S. temperature is projected to increase by about 4°F to 11°F. Because our oceans have absorbed huge quantities of our greenhouse gas emissions, the sea is 30 percent more acidic than it was 200 years ago. If the current emission rate continues, we will likely reach an acidification level unprecedented in the last 300 million years, endangering nearly all life in the seas. Currently, species are dying 10,000 times faster than natural extinction rates-faster than at any time in the last 65 million years. It would be a folly to think that we can ignore what our Creator is telling us through the earth.
St. Francis of Assisi was a person of bold hope and courageous action. He invites us to live in a world defined not by selfishness, greed, or violence, but rather by God’s love and a passionate desire for communion, solidarity, and self-giving love. In October, thousands of Catholics across our country will be celebrating the feast of St. Francis.Many parishes are offering a program called “Melting Ice, Mending Creation,” prepared by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, that takes St. Francis as its model. Everyone-children, youth, and adults-are encouraged to take St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor.The U.S.-based Franciscan Action Network is launching the Franciscan Earth Corps, a special program modeled after the Peace Corps that engages young adults to respond to the Christian call for ecological conversion.
We would love for you to join us! Do you have a pet that you want to bring for a blessing? Do you want to learn more about “Melting Ice, Mending Creation”? Are you ready to take the St. Francis Pledge or find out more about the Franciscan Earth Corps? If yes, then contact (name your church and its location, email or telephone).
At one Blessing of the Animals ceremony, I overheard someone asking a Franciscan friar if any of those creatures were expected to have a spiritual awakening. “I don’t know,” he said, smiling.“But it’s little enough to do if this blessing will move us away from the brink of the ecological catastrophe.” Perhaps in the end it will be a little child-with her puppy-that leads us into a new way of living.