By Kathleen Stachowski,
You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the Blessing of the Animals offered by churches during October, usually near the Oct. 4th Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. In fact, non-Catholic denominations frequently conduct their own animal blessing services, and why not–what’s not to love?!? Heck, you don’t even have to be religious to find beauty in this simple, compassionate gesture.
Francis started life in the one per cent, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. But a vision redirected his trajectory, and he subsequently lived his life in service to the poorest of the 99%, showing a special affinity for animals, whom he considered his brothers and sisters.
It is said that, one day, while Francis was travelling with some
companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the
trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go
to preach to my sisters the birds.” The birds surrounded him, intrigued by
the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. He is often portrayed
with a bird, typically in his hand.
It’s also told that the good Saint intervened on behalf of townspeople who were terrorized by a ferocious wolf whose constant killing was motivated by hunger. Francis tracked him and, upon finding the wolf, made peace between him and the people, ultimately blessing the wolf. (How one wishes for a Second Coming of Francis here in Montana before the wolf hunting and trapping orgy begins!)
According to CBS News in New York, “(a) llama, a mini horse, falcons, dogs and even a camel were offered blessings at the Morningside Heights church to celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.” Ted the camel, a sanctuary resident... cats, turtles, goats, and no less than a kangaroo have been blessed.
But there’s a divide as stark as heaven and hell between the animals we know and love as individuals and the nameless billions–no less individuals than our beloved cats and dogs–who endure lives of abject suffering and face brutal deaths in our nation’s factory farms. What do we make of this but that our species has developed the ability to compartmentalize our regard for other animals: companions vs. farmed animals; furry kids vs. food; the animals we treat with kindness vs. the animals we eat in blindness. Matthew Scully, writing in Dominion: The power of man, the suffering of animals, and the call to mercy, puts it thus:
For many Christians, there is this one world in which man made in the image of God affirms the inherent goodness of animals…And then there is this other world, the world of reality in which people and industries are left free to do as they will without moral restraint or condemnation…There is the stirring world of “All Creatures of Our God and King,” the lyrics written by Saint Francis himself and often sung by Catholics filing out of Mass. And then there is the world of the Easter feast of lamb or ham or veal, to be enjoyed without the slightest thought of the privation and misery the lamb or pig or calf endured at human hands (Dominion, Scully 17).
Pope John Paul II, during World Environment Day in 1982, said “It is my hope that the inspiration of Saint Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of ‘fraternity’ with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created.” A Methodist church in Georgia wrote that St. Francis “lived his life with a profound love and respect for all creatures, human and animal alike.”
Regardless of our individual religious beliefs–or lack of them–we can surely agree that, when we look beyond our own dear companions, our kinship with animals has suffered. As a species, our love and respect is granted selectively. We exploit them in the show ring, the circus, the rodeo arena, the zoo; we breed them irresponsibly then kill the excess; we lock them away in the research lab; we condemn them to hellish existences without a shred of kindness then eat their tortured bodies and wear the skins that never knew a gentle touch.
If ever a saint was needed to intervene on behalf of animals, it is now.