St. Francis celebrations bring animals, seekers to church

October 2, 2009

Many Episcopal churches great and small soon will be filled with the sounds of barking, mewing, cawing and snuffling as well as music and prayer as congregations celebrate St. Francis by blessing their companion animals.

The Episcopal Church annually commemorates St. Francis of Assisi, and it congregations often bless animals on the Sunday closest to the 13th century saint's feast day. This year the feast day falls on a Sunday (October 4) and animal blessings will be part of many congregations' Sunday worship, while others will hold separate services. In some churches, animals will join humans in the pews and in other places the services will be held outside. The animals arriving for blessings will range from elephants and camels to goldfish and snakes, with cats and dogs forming the majority.

"We view the service as a celebration of God's great and diverse creation," the Rev. David Stout, rector of Trinity Church in Asbury Park, New Jersey, told ENS. "But we also see it as a way to invite people into our sacred space and into a relationship with God. We look at it as evangelism."

In the five years that Trinity has had a blessing of the animals service, Stout said, preachers have often used people's sense that pets love them unconditionally to illustrate the Christian belief in God's unconditional love for them and all of creation.

Many current members first experienced Trinity during a blessing of the animals service, Stout said, noting that the service began when the church had a very small attendance. The original service five years ago was the first time in the parish's then-recent memory when Sunday attendance topped 90 people. The current average weekend attendance hovers around 280, he said.

Stout said the parish promotes the service beyond its own members. "We ask our folks to invite their friends who might not normally come to church or who are hesitant to take that first step to come back to church," he said.

Trinity also hangs banners outside the church announcing the coming service, places ads in local newspapers, sends news releases to local media, creates email advertisements that urges members to forward to others, and uses the local Chamber of Commerce's 3,000 member listserv.

Many congregations combine the blessings with outreach to local animal shelters and other efforts to raise awareness of the Episcopal Church's concern for the stewardship of creation. For example, at Washington National Cathedral, adoptable animals from Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL) and Washington Humane Society (WHS) will attend and greet attendees before the 2 p.m. service to be held in the courtyard outside the cathedral.

As part of the day, oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle will join Dean Sam Lloyd during the cathedral's Sunday Forum to look at the role oceans play in the survival of the planet and people's spiritual relationship to creation.

The services will be ecumenical in some communities. In Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, St. Luke's Episcopal Church will join with local United Methodist and United Church of Christ congregations to bless animals and gather money and supplies for the local Humane Society of the Lakes.

The Rev. Dana Emery recently told the Detroit Lakes newspaper that the service is meant to "celebrate the mutual relationship of all God's creatures."

"A service of blessing is a sign of humility and respect, a reminder that humans are not the center of everything," she said.

Francis, who was born in 1182 and died October 3, 1226, was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant when he heard God's call to live a life of poverty while serving the poor and all of creation. His way of life attracted others and he found the Order of Friars Minor, also known today as the Franciscans.

Legends say that Francis could communicate with animals. Stories are told of him preaching to birds and later succeeding in getting them to be silent while during a church service. The most famous story insists that Francis tamed a wolf that was terrorizing the Italian village of Grubbio. It is said that, calling the animal Brother Wolf, Francis ordered him not to hurt anyone. He then asked the wolf to come back to the village with him where the villagers pledged to feed the now-tame animal.

A selection of blessing of the animals liturgies is available here from the Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare.

Episcopal Life Online's weekly bulletin inserts for October 4, available here, mark a connection between blessing companion animals on the Feast of St. Francis and providing the blessing of animals for families in impoverished communities through Episcopal Relief and Development's Gifts for Life program.

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