This weekend, many churches in Charlotte will welcome a menagerie of special guests: furry four-leggers, feathery singers, scaly swimmers and slitherers, and, of course, a large contingent of Man’s Best Friend.
The animal kingdom, in other words.
It’s early October – time again to bless cats, birds, fish, snakes, dogs and whatever other critters show up on the church grounds.
After all, they were all created by God, say the people who care for them and the ministers who will pray or sprinkle holy water over them.
These annual events – called Blessing of the Animals – are as popular as ever, drawing big crowds of people and their pets to Protestant and Catholic churches across the globe.
Though the mood is always festive, this is serious business, “not just a cutesy thing,” says the Rev. Paul Winton, rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is expected to have one of the biggest Blessings of the Animals in Charlotte on Saturday.
“They are not our animals,” Winton says. “These are creatures that belong to God. They’ve been entrusted to us, and we take very seriously our stewardship. We are continuing Adam’s work.”
That’s Adam from the Garden of Eden, who was created, along with Eve, after God made “swarms of (other) living creatures,” according to the Book of Genesis.
Bible readings are the norm at many of these church services on the front lawn. There’s Genesis, the first book in the Bible, which recounts how God created the first animals – winged birds flying above the earth, great sea monsters lurking in the deep, and “cattle and creeping things and beasts” grazing on the land – and then gave Adam, Eve and their descendents dominion over them.
Also popular is Proverbs 12:10. “The righteous,” it says, “care for the needs of their animals.”
‘We’re with you, Francis’
But many churches also point to another religious inspiration: St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century Italian friar who referred to animals as his brothers and sisters, and, as legend has it, preached to birds and tamed a wolf.
Francis’ feast day is Oct. 4 – hence, the timing for the annual Blessings of the Animals.
Named the patron saint of the environment by Pope John Paul II, Francis was also the author of a prayer, “Canticle of the Creatures,” and a hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” that have become part of many of the church blessing services.
At Charlotte’s St. Francis United Methodist Church, which will bless animals Saturday, the annual event “is probably the key event we do,” says David Judge, the church’s evangelism and missions chairperson.
By continuing to honor, care for and bless their pets, those who bring their Fidos and Friskies to church are carrying on the Franciscan tradition, says the Rev. Martin Schratz. He’s a Capuchin Franciscan who pastors Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hendersonville.
At the blessings, Schratz says, these pet owners “are saying, ‘We’re with you, Francis. We love our animals, too.’”
Praying for Bumble
Joan Brennan, a counselor who’s attended St. John’s Episcopal for more than 20 years, will attend the church’s Saturday blessing – along with Bumble, her 5-year-old terrier-Shih Tzu mix.
He’ll be the dog wearing that plastic cone-like collar that keeps canines from licking or chewing after surgery. Bumble had a tumor removed this week.
“I certainly believe in the healing power of prayer – and not just for creatures with two legs,” says Brennan.
Her other dog, Lily, a golden retriever-Britanny spaniel mix, will be staying home Saturday because she’s set for knee surgery Monday. But a priest from the church who lives in her neighborhood has agreed to come by Brennan’s house and bless the pooch.
Sermons at animal blessings often center on the spiritual lessons pets can teach their owners. About living in the moment, for example.
And from dogs, “we can learn a lot about the unconditional love of God,” says the Rev. Nancy Kraft, pastor of Charlotte’s Holy Trinity Lutheran, a pet owner – a pug named Pooky and a cat called Guido – who will also bless animals on Saturday.
Opinions differ on whether animals have souls or go to heaven. But these creatures – especially trusting, dependent pets – appear to be part of God’s plan to make us better people, says the Rev. Josh Bowron, senior assistant to the rector at St. John’s Episcopal.
“It certainly seems that God has given us the companionship of animals to enliven our humanity and call us to deeper and deeper compassion,” he says.
The animal blessings have, among other things, been a spur to ecumenism. Two Charlotte churches – St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic and Advent Lutheran – have partnered on a joint service for more than 15 years.
Deacon Mark Nash, a Catholic who will preside over the Sunday blessing at St. Thomas, says he hopes to remind people that humans are called not to be oppressors or abusers of animals, but to treat them as fellow inhabitants of the planet.
“They must be part of God’s creation,” he says. “Otherwise, they would have been left off Noah’s boat.”
Though dogs dominate most Blessings of the Animals, the events draw more exotic creatures, too.
Organizers at St. Francis United Methodist have heard that somebody may bring a tarantula this year. And members of the Charlotte Zoological Park will be at the church with a 16-foot python.
Rector Winton at St. John’s Episcopal says he was once asked to bless a hedgehog that was transported to the church in a sock.
He did it, but Winton says he has a rule about snakes: He lets his assistants bless them.
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