Saint Francis of Assisi is remembered as one who valued creation as a mirror of the Creator. He once wrote, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
Francis’s concern for God’s creatures is why many churches take an opportunity to celebrate a Blessing of the Animals service, often in October near Francis’ feast day of October 4. The service is generally preceded by a parade of animals. Cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, horses and even stuffed animals, led by their caregivers, make their way to church or a nearby park or parking area set aside for the service. Children especially love the service, but for animal caregivers of all ages, the service is special, says Kate Fields, pastor of Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa, Wis.
“Blessing animals is a very good practice to help us center nonhuman creation and a way for us to acknowledge how deeply meaningful pets are to our lives,” she said. “Animals become integral parts of our families and so it is deeply meaningful to folks to be able to bring them to be blessed — to thank them for their love, to acknowledge they matter a lot to us, and to pray for their health.”
Fields knows a lot about the many benefits of caring for animals. She worked in veterinary medicine for five years and is “mother” to two rescued racing greyhounds, who have affectionately become known as the Underwood church hounds.
“They brighten up the office as well as come on some pastoral visits with me,” Fields said. “Often, they are able to connect to folks’ pain way more quickly than I can. They will put their heads in a lap and be a comforting presence, and sometimes that is all that’s needed.”
A Blessing of the Animals service recognizes that love and belonging that animals bring to human life, which is why Fields holds an annual St. Francis Day Blessing of the Animals at Underwood and has also done pet blessing services at an animal rescue organization in the area.
The service itself is probably the easiest part. Several denominations, including the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church, have liturgies with suggested Scripture and other readings.
The UMC liturgy recommends celebrating the Blessing of Animals during daylight in the outdoors. Suggested Scripture readings include:
- Genesis 1 (creation)
- Genesis 6:17-22 (animals on the ark)
- Isaiah 11:6-9 (the wolf and the lamb)
- Psalm 148 (praise The Lord for creation).
Hymn suggestions include:
- “All Creatures of Our God and King”
- “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale”
- “This is My Father’s World”
- “The Friendly Beasts”
- “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”
The Episcopal Church suggests a prayer for the animals: “Most high, omnipotent good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy. O God, you have made us and all living things. You are even more wonderful than what you have made. We thank you for giving us these pets who bring us joy. As you take care of us, so also we ask your help that we might take care of those who trust us to look after them. By doing this, we share in your own love for all creation. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.”
The Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati, Ohio, offer a blessing to be prayed over each animal at the service: “Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired Saint Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”
Abbreviated versions may be adapted as individual pets and their owners are blessed. For example, a shortened version of the Episcopal pet blessing says, “N., (name of animal, i.e. “Smokey,” not cat/dog) may you be blessed in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. May you and (the name of the “owner”) enjoy life together and find joy with the God who created you.”
Some churches add a missions outreach to the Blessing of the Animals service and ask participants and guests to bring pet food, chew toys, blankets or other animal needs. These donations are then given to a local animal shelter.
Another option is to include a book reading or a reading area set up for children in attendance. Several children’s books about Saint Francis are available, including:
- “Saint Francis and the Animals” by Randy Wollenmann (illustrator)
- “Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi” by Tomie di Paola
- “The Song of Francis” by Tomie di Paola
- “Saint Francis” by Brian Wildsmith
- “Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi” by Juliette Levivier
However the service is conducted, the goal is the same, Fields says. “From a theological level, the Blessing of the Animals helps us to remember how connected we are to all of the creation that God made and that it is our responsibility to care for and make responsible decisions involving it.”
Carrie Brown McWhorter writes for several publications, including The Alabama Baptist newspaper and Missions Mosaic magazine. Find her on Facebook @McWhorterMedia or visit her website, carriebrownmcwhorter.com.