Michael Croland: Maryann Fuchs does not know why she takes her dogs to Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church year after year for the St. Francis Blessing of the Animals. The October 3 ceremony, which lasted less than a half-hour, drew a crowd of about 20 leashed dogs, two cats in carriers, and animal lovers from the surrounding Astoria area.
At first thought, Fuchs seemed certain that 9-year-old Pomeranian Patrick, 8-year-old Schnauzer Joseph, and 1-year-old Schnauzer Timothy do not understand what takes place at the ceremony. Fuchs said that her dogs do not behave better or become more pious after they are blessed. “No, because they’re dogs—they don’t have souls,” she said. “It’s nice, St. Francis—but they don’t know.”
She paused to reflect. She had noticed that her dogs calmed down and behaved respectfully when Fr. Liju Augustine approached them, recited a short blessing, and sprinkled holy water on them. “They know it,” said Fuchs. “Instinct.”
Fuchs’ confusion and mixed feelings were representative of many attendees in the barren parking lot behind the church. The guardian of 5-year-old Pug Pepper insisted that she became “holier” and “more angelic” upon being blessed. Twelve-year-old Dalmatian–black lab mix Spock is “still the same dog” but “gets another year each time,” according to his owner. Spock shook nervously during the ceremony and appeared to be less than enthused. The guardian of 7-year-old Lhasa Apso Buddy said that her family is Catholic and wants to “keep him in the loop.” Buddy immediately shook off the holy water that the priest sprinkled on him.
Augustine did not delve deeply into theological stances about how the blessing might affect animals. “Who is making so much noise here? Hey! … Oh, my God!” he quipped upon addressing the crowd. In seriousness but with a beaming smile, he added, “You are really enjoying the presence of the Lord taking care of these beautiful animals. May Jesus bless you abundantly and take care of all your animals.”
Many Catholic and Episcopalian churches honor the compassionate teachings of St. Francis of Assisi by blessing animals on or near October 4, a feast day in his honor. Whereas many saints are associated with specific animals, Christians revere St. Francis for his love of all animals and consider him the patron saint of animals and the environment.
According to the 2008 book Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition, “hundreds, if not thousands” of blessing ceremonies in at least 40 states occur each year. Author Laura Hobgood-Oster notes that the blessings “have probably taken place throughout Christian history.” She attributes their “dramatically” increasing popularity in the late 20th century to the highly publicized blessing spectacle at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopalian church on the Upper West Side. Dogs are the most common nonhuman attendees of blessing ceremonies, writes Hobgood-Oster.
This year marks the 800-year anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan Order within the Catholic Church. On September 27, at the “Francis Week” kickoff event at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Midtown Manhattan, several friars praised St. Francis for forming the order that the church is a part of in 1209. St. Francis, of Assisi, Italy, petitioned Pope Innocent III to allow friars to live a more disciplined, ascetic life in accordance with Jesus Christ’s lifestyle and teachings. The order is now known as the Order of Friars Minor.
During the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi’s 15-minute blessing of the animals on October 3, Fr. Michael Carnevale spoke about St. Francis’ love for animals. On the church’s front steps, he sprinkled holy water on each of the roughly two dozen dogs and cats in attendance, as well as a thoroughbred horse named J.J. from the NYPD Mounted Unit. Each time Carnevale said, “May Almighty God bless you. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Each animal received a medallion that read, “St. Francis of Assisi” and “Protect My Pet.”
“It helps to remind us of Francis’ great love for the environment,” Carnevale said following the ceremony. “I think the friars have always tried to push the idea that the environment is so important—and the beauty of life and the beauty of creation.”
Carnevale stressed that the blessing of the animals is but one component of Francis Week. He emphasized that the Transitus, which commemorates St. Francis’ death, and the feast in his honor should not be overlooked.
Some attendees thought the ceremony could heal their sick animals. Guy Chiapperini came from the Bronx along with Bluto, a male German shepherd wearing a pink T-shirt. Chiapperini said that Bluto, 6, suffers from kidney failure and undergoes dialysis twice a week.
“I feel good after the ceremony and that the Lord can keep them healthy and living a long, healthy life,” said Chiapperini. “I’m hoping for a miracle from the Lord. The doctors say his kidneys aren’t going to get better, but I believe. I believe that through the Lord anything is possible.”
In his own way, Bluto also looked up above, voiced a strong message to a higher authority, and hoped he would be heard. While the other animals stayed mostly quiet during the ceremony, Bluto spent several minutes barking at J.J. the police horse.
Michael Croland runs heebnvegan, a blog about Judaism and animal issues. He has won a Genesis Award from The Humane Society of the United States for his articles about animal protection.
Read Michael’s account of Jewish Blessing of the Animals ceremonies here.