Mgr Keith Barltrop is Director of the Catholic Agency to
Support Evangelisation (CASE), an agency of the Bishops’ Conference of England
and Wales. Here he describes an animal-blessing service with a difference.
BY MGR KEITH BARLTROP
APOLOGIES FOR THE AWFUL TITLE and to the newspaper headline-writer from whom
I took it, but a zany headline was perhaps appropriate for a day with a
difference, at which some Franciscans and I blessed animals, or to be more
precise, four dogs and two tortoises (plus a fluffy toy dog). Some explanation
of the context would be helpful to Ark readers.
It all began with the experience many of us share about our society today,
that while organised religion is generally out of favour, there is a huge amount
of spiritual searching going on. We may not like some of the forms it takes, and
some of those forms are by any standard contrary to the Gospel: horoscopes,
crystals, witchcraft, to name a few.
However, if we truly desire to share the Gospel with the people of our time,
or more succinctly, to share Jesus Christ, our great love, with others, we have
no choice but to start from where they are and to journey with them. Experience
confirms that just preaching at people, or treating them as if they were blank
material to be written on with our teaching, just doesn’t work, and anyway is
quite contrary to the way Jesus himself worked: think of how he entered
patiently into dialogue with the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4.
With this in mind, Christians of all persuasions (and our Protestant brothers
and sisters are, as usual, ahead of us in this) have begun attending New Age
Fairs and quietly offering a Christian alternative stall at them. Usually, since
overt proclamation of the Gospel is not allowed at such events, this takes the
form of offering to pray with people, especially to pray for healing.
Christian alternative to a New Age Fair
Encouraged by the considerable fruit such initiatives have borne, Canon
Yvonne Richmond of Coventry Cathedral organised on Bank Holiday Monday 2006 the
first fully Christian alternative to a New Age Fair: a Christian Spirituality
Fair at the Cathedral. It was repeated this year.
The idea was that all the stalls would appeal to spiritual seekers, but
approach their subject from a Christian point of view. Thus there were stalls on
Christian Dream Interpretation, Meditation in the Christian Tradition – and,
this year, the Blessing of Animals.
I forget exactly whose idea it was to bless animals at a Christian
Spirituality Fair. It may have been mine, as I have delightful memories of my
time as a student in Rome, when I witnessed the annual blessing of farm animals
on the January feast of St. Anthony the Abbot (not in Rome itself, but in a
village some miles away). Given the contemporary concern with the environment,
and a growing awareness of the importance of treating animals with respect, it
seemed an appropriate theme to offer.
The practical limitations of the idea became apparent on the day itself.
Although the blessing had received considerable publicity, featuring as the lead
attraction on many of the materials sent out, it soon dawned on us that many
people would simply not be wandering around central Coventry on a wet Bank
Holiday with their pets unless they had deliberately brought them to be blessed,
which not many did. So the final count of two tortoises and four dogs (plus a
fluffy toy dog) was not too bad.
Questions of animals in religion
I had prepared myself for lots of questions about the role of animals in
religion, and, of course, for the big one: will my pet go to heaven? Initial
research into this topic was not very encouraging: St Thomas Aquinas, no less,
appears to have held the view that animals do not possess a soul, and therefore
cannot be considered eligible for a risen life.
Further thought, however, reveals this topic to be intrinsically connected to
what one can only call a seriously deficient response by the Catholic community
to environmental concerns. It is challenging to reflect that the future of the
planet is probably the number one concern for many people today, yet the Church
speaks very little about it. What is needed is serious reflection based on our
own rich theology of creation. The Orthodox Church also has a great contribution
to make, with, for example, their thought-provoking theme of humanity as the
‘priest of creation’.
Once we begin to reflect, not just on the origin of creation, but on its
destiny in the heart of God, we remember that our faith teaches a twofold
resurrection of the dead. Individually we appear before God after our death, and
it may be difficult to fit animals into this scheme of things, but there is also
a general resurrection and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth at the
end of time. Surely God who has created the world we know now in such
magnificent variety, including the animal realm, will not make the new creation
any less splendid or variegated? In which case, animal life may well find its
place in that new creation.
Back to a damp Coventry bank holiday: I mentioned the presence of the
Franciscans, in the form of two Friars of the Renewal from Canning Town in their
unmistakable grey habits. In case you were wondering what we did all day when
there were only six animals (and one fluffy one) to bless, let me hasten to add
that the Friars proved magnificent in getting human animals to come for a
blessing, and often to come and have a chat with me, or to hear one of them
expound the teaching of St Francis.
It was thus that I came into contact with some heart-breaking stories of
people who have little contact with the Church, such as the girl who had tried
to commit suicide after the death of her own father. What a privilege both to
bless animals, those messengers of God’s love and sense of humour, and to pray
with those whose souls were in need of the healing only Christ can give.
CASE information can be found on
www.caseresources.org.uk and (for non-Catholics)
Return to: Number 207 - Autumn/Winter 2007