Each fall, churches around the country throw open their doors and welcome all creatures great and small during the annual Blessing of the Animals ceremony.
In many Catholic churches, the service extending benedictions to animal congregants is held on or near Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, named patron saint of the environment by John Paul II in 1979.
The ceremony also is popular in the Episcopal Church and, to a lesser extent, other denominations.
Since 1999, St. Michael’s Church in downtown Charleston has welcomed animals into its historic sanctuary for the annual event. The sounds of cats, dogs, birds, snakes, rabbits and other pets fills the room.
Although a parishioner gave St. Michael’s rector, the Rev. Al Zadig Jr., a silver pooper scooper, nary a fight nor accident has occurred in that time. Quite the opposite.
“It brings home the beauty of creation,” Zadig said. “When the church takes time to say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for creation,’ that affirmation provides an extremely pastorally important moment.”
For some, the event marks the only day they attend church, evidence of the importance pets hold in people’s lives, Zadig said.
“So much of it is the look on people’s faces when they sit and hold their pets in their arms listening to Bible verses,” said Zadig, who has preached holding his own pet poodle.
While the ceremony is associated with St. Francis in most churches today, the official patron saint of animals is actually St. Anthony the Abbot who lived in the 3rd century.
However, St. Francis was largely adopted for the animal blessing services when they became popular in the U.S. last century.
Throughout October, hundreds of churches across the country, including many in the Lowcountry, will hold animal blessing services.
One of the biggest nationally has been held annually since 1985 at the Episcopal Cathedral of New York’s St. John the Divine.
“Thousands of people along with animals of myriad shapes, sizes and colors pack the world’s largest Gothic cathedral for a joyous and solemn religious service that celebrates all living things,” said Jonathan Korzen, the cathedral’s communications director. “The procession has included camels, oxen, horses and a golden eagle.”
Director of Liturgy Johan van Parys at St. Mary’s Basilica in Minnesota says the church also has experienced some unusually large animal visitors during its service. “Several years ago, we had a yak walk down the center aisle of the church during the parade of animals to begin the ceremony,” he recalled.
Maggi Odell, a member of Grace Episcopal Church in Pike Road, Ala., said her church has been holding the service for many years.
“We have had rabbits, birds, lizards, potbellied pigs, rats, mice and horses,” Odell said. “The service begins with scripture, prayers and hymns, and concludes with the blessing of each pet which is done with the sprinkling of water and the Sign of the Cross.
We have also had dogs drink the water that was intended to be sprinkled on them. We just assumed that those dogs wanted to be blessed both inside and out!”
In addition to asking blessings for beloved pets, the service also is a timely reminder that many animals in the community are not so fortunate. During his years as rector at Olivet Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Va., Rev. David Harper would take up a collection during the service. But not to top up the church coffers.
“The donations were made to one of the local animal shelters, and the folks were generous for that,” Harper said.
Although the potential for mayhem may seem inevitable, Rev. June Wilkins at St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, said few instances of chaos have occurred.
“We have had no accidents, the barking is at a minimum, and there have been no fights. They are better behaved than some of the humans,” Wilkins said.
However, the Rev. Richard Laribee, of Trinity Episcopal Church in Watertown, N.Y., has a bone to pick about claims of saintly animal behavior during the ceremony.
“That’s an urban legend,” Laribee said. “We’ve had to remove some dogs who were barking so loudly we couldn’t hear ourselves sing.”
Steven Rottgers, canon to the ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, has blessed his fair share of goats, ducks, gerbils, alligators, pigs and even a piranha. But during one service it was necessary to seek repentance for a very vocal myna bird.
“The previous owners had taught the bird to cuss,” Rottgers recalled.
Despite the occasional fall from grace, most critters put their best foot, hoof or claw forward as they receive their blessings — and most ministers said they see the service gaining popularity.
“I hope we are seeing a movement toward the stewardship of creation, conservation of endangered species and care for the animal kingdom,” Rottgers said. “It’s a way to also show how animals are part of our life as family.”
— Jennifer Berry Hawes contributed to this report.
— Nick Thomas writes features and columns for magazines and newspapers. Contact him at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com.