Feast of St. Francis of Assisi: Embrace pets, animals and nature

St. Francis of Assisi animals

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 4: Take your pet to a church service!

Many congregations nationwide are holding pet blessings in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment. What used to be a parade of rural farm animals down country lanes has evolved into preachers raising a hand over dogs, cats and hamsters; some pastors even travel to dog parks! But, note: Some blessings occur prior to the Oct. 4 feast day, while others are delayed until later in the calendar, so check your local listings.

Did you know? St. Francis of Assisi not only founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of St. Clare, but he also created the first Nativity scene—and received the first recorded stigmata!

Christians might not agree on the fate of pets, but St. Francis of Assisi went called animals his “brothers and sisters”; he insisted that they are an integral part of God’s creation.

ST FRANCIS: FROM WEALTH TO INTENTIONAL POVERTY

As with many famous saints, St. Francis’ life began in wealth. Born to a cloth merchant in Assisi in 1181, Francis lived in luxury until war called him away from home, in 1204. It was immediately following the war that Francis received a vision; he soon lost his desire for a worldly life and returned to Assisi as a peasant. Francis’ father disowned him for his choice to follow Christ, and the saint-to-be began both begging and preaching on the streets. Soon after, Francis created an order that would, in 10 years, number more than 5,000. St. Francis was canonized less than two years after his death.

ST. FRANCIS: ON ANIMALS, NATURE & THE ENVIRONMENT

Pet blessings

U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Jesus Navarrete sprinkles a dog with holy water during the Blessing of Pets ceremony at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Photo by Senior Airman Aubrey White, courtesy of U.S. Air Force

St. Francis wasn’t the first to raise the question of animals in heaven—and he wasn’t the first to affirm his belief, either! (It’s a common theme in Psalms that all creatures of God, whether man or beast, have a duty to praise Him.) Nor was St. Francis the last to preach this message: although some evangelical Christians believe that our pets are barred from heaven, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was famous as an early advocate for humane treatment of animals. Wesley preached that we will see our pets in heaven. To this day, many Protestant and Anglican congregations offer St. Francis-themed blessings of animals.

St. Francis challenged everyone to protect nature: We are, after all, God’s stewards on earth. Legends about St. Francis paint a portrait of a man whose donkey wept upon his death; who blessed a wolf and commanded him to stop harming townspeople and their flocks; and who garnered rapt attention from birds when he told his companions that he would “preach to” his “sisters the birds.” It’s said that during his sermon, not one bird flew away.

AT HOME: ST. FRANCIS FOR FAMILIES

Whether you’re honoring St. Francis or your own pet today, there are plenty of activities to choose from! Those wishing to remember the saint can pray the Canticle of the Sun; learn more about the fantastic festival in Assisi today; or cook up an Italian feast. (Catholic Culture has additional ideas.) Aside from taking your pet for a walk or to a pet-blessing service, animal lovers can raise money for a local animal shelter; make Fido an herbal flea collar; or even take a lesson in pet communication. (TLC has more.)

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St. Francis of Assisi: Pet blessings, ecology and the patron saint of animals

“He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history.”

Archbishop and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio
(better known as Pope Francis)

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WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 4: Coast to coast, a small but growing number of churches host autumn pet blessings, honoring St. Francis of Assisi whose official holiday falls on a Wednesday this year. If you are looking for Francis-themed services in your area, check local news sources or congregational websites in your area.

The United Methodist Church’s website offers resources for pet blessings with instructions similar to many mainline denominations—that is, to be used anytime or as close to the October 4 feast day as congregations may find practical.

St. Francis of Assisi certainly is one of the world’s most widely revered saints, especially since the current pope, when elected in 2013, publicly chose Francis’ name and promoted his spiritual example. Mainly associated with concern for animals and the environment, St. Francis of Assisi lived only into his mid 40s, but made a unique impression upon the world. St. Francis founded the Franciscan Order. He also is widely credited with creating the first crèche, or Christmas Nativity Scene. He constantly tried, however possible, to imitate what Jesus had said and done.

LIFE OF ST. FRANCIS

Man in brown robes in field with animals

Saint Francis with the Animals. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, St. Francis was born 1181/1182 CE in Assisi, Italy. Nicknamed “Francesco,” for “Frenchman,” Giovanni’s father desired for his son to share a love of the materials trade, silk and acquired wealth. Though sympathy for the poor was evident in his childhood, it wasn’t until he became a young man that Francis began to question his way of life.

Despite his father’s threats and beatings, Francis began preaching in the streets. Followers came to him, and the group known as “Lesser Brothers” claimed no material possessions. (Wikipedia has details.) In 1210, Francis’ Order was officially approved by Pope Innocent III. Later, Francis founded the Order of Poor Clares—an enclosed religious order for women—and the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. In 1224, while praying during a 40-day fast for Michaelmas, Francis had a vision of the Exaltation of the Cross and received the stigmata. (Learn more from Catholic.org.)

St. Francis believed that nature was the mirror of God. In his Canticle of Creatures, St. Francis refers to “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon” and even “Sister Death.” The saint called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” with stories written of his preaching to the birds and convincing a wolf to stop attacking nearby villagers if they agreed to feed him.

Francis died of illness in 1226, and in July 1228—less than two years after his death—he was proclaimed a saint.

RESOURCES:

Many Christian groups offer online samples for pet blessings. The United Methodist website is linked above. Here’s a link to materials from the Episcopal Church. Another popular source is Let All Creation Praise, a website with eco-friendly Christian themes. The Humane Society of the United States also offers many free, online St. Francis-related stories and resources, including on this page within the HSUS website.

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