Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Blessing All the Animals
distributed 7/27/07 & 7/22/11 - ©2007, 2011

The 2007 issue of Eco-Justice Notes was underwritten by Reid Detchon, of Bethesda, Maryland. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

In many churches, the Blessing of the Animals is a treasured moment in the liturgical year. When people bring their pets to be blessed, the church has an opportunity to affirm the richness of our connection with creatures outside our own species. It is a worship setting which reminds us of the responsibilities that we have in caring for these critters.

It is clear that people who take part in these blessings do not think of their pets as property. These dogs and cats and bunnies are "animal companions" and other-than-human family members.

People -- children, but especially adults -- can be deeply moved when their beloved friends are blessed. Not only does the ritual acknowledge that the animals are loved by God, it also blesses the deep and caring relationship between the person and the animal. When the pets are old and sick, the blessing can have special meaning as an acknowledgement of mortality, and as a way to bring some healing to a grieving human.

I can't think of animal blessing ceremonies in an entirely serious way, though. Gathering a large group of animals always has the potential for humor. The animals being blessed can respond with the same range of disinterest, fascination and alarm as children who are being baptized. Worship leaders do well to plan carefully with treats, separate areas for cats and dogs, and lots of plastic bags and paper towels.

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Traditionally -- and it is a very old tradition -- the blessing of animals has dealt with domesticated animals. The livestock on a family's farm would be blessed in appreciation for their part in providing sustenance, and as a reminder of the farmer's responsibilities in caring for these beings who -- like us -- are God's creatures. In recent years, as societies have become more urban, the emphasis has shifted toward blessing family pets.

Anglican priest Andrew Linzey is a professor of "theology and animal welfare" in England. In his book, Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care, he reflects on the deeper meaning of animal blessing as the "authorization to be":

Thus the act of blessing is inseparable from the divine grant of land, living space, indeed life itself. The subversive implications of this definition should not go unnoticed. ... By blessing animals, therefore, we align ourselves with God's own allowance of freedom to other creatures, even (dare I say it) their own right to be themselves and to be free.
Linzey suggests that our blessing needs to reach beyond the familiar pets of our households. Our sense of blessing, of affirmation and concern, should extend to those which are "confined, made captive, or restrained by human exploitation." With this awareness, an act of blessing also calls us into advocacy and action.

When I talk with churches about blessing ceremonies, I encourage them to go beyond the normal rituals for pets, and to include some explicit form of blessing for wild animals and endangered species. Every time I have mentioned that idea, the church leaders have responded with delight, enthusiasm and creativity.

In one church, I heard that the Christian educator who was in charge of the blessing of the animals developed the larger theme in a "children's sermon" sort of style. She started by talking about the loving relationship that we share with our pets, and the mutual blessing which takes place between people and critters. She then used the example of Heifer Project farm animals, and the loving blessing that is extended to treasured livestock. Then she stretched out the circle of care to the animals that "don't belong to anybody" -- polar bears and penguins, insects in the rainforest and fish in the sea, and the Canada geese "who poop all over our parks in the winter."

She asked the kids, and of course the adults in the congregation, too:

Do you think God only wants us to bless those critters we love? Or those creatures who give us something directly, like milk and eggs? Or do you think God might want us to spare a blessing for the birds, and the beasts, and the insects, and the fish, and even those one-celled phytoplanktons that are part of this whole marvelous shimmering web of creation?
When the time came for the actual blessing ritual, Melinda gave these instructions:
So as you bring your companions forward for a blessing today, I'd like you to take the feather after I've blessed your friend. Dip it in the water and sprinkle the earth or the sky as you bless in your heart a creature who may seem far away from us, but who is an integral part of the web and our teacher of God's ways.
Other churches have expanded their blessings by using photographs or stuffed animals as representatives for species which could not be physically present. Zoos and environmental education projects may be able to bring unusual species to a blessing.

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Lots of churches schedule their blessing of the animals in early October, in connection with the Feast of St. Francis. The Italian tradition does blessing on January 17th, the date of the death (in 356 AD) of Saint Anthony of Abbot, the patron saint of the animal kingdom. Other congregations do it around Earth Day, or at an outdoor summer service.

Whenever the service is held, it can be an emotionally rich time to celebrate the fullness of God's creation, and to affirm the profoundly loving relationships that we share with animal companions. If the liturgy is intentional in doing so, a blessing of the animals can be a teachable moment in calling us into confession and compassion in our relationships with the larger animal realm.

If your congregation has a tradition of a blessing of the animals, please encourage the worship leader to stretch the prayers and blessing beyond the pets that people bring to church. Explore creative ways to name and visualize the creatures which are not present at that place, but which are very present within the circles of God's love and grace.

If your congregation or denomination doesn't have a tradition of blessing the animals, I hope you'll consider adding such a liturgy to your calendar. It is a simple, enjoyable, pastoral and meaningful way to extend the ministries of the church beyond the human.

The ecumenical "Web of Creation" website has two sample liturgies for animal blessings. One of them is a fairly traditional Episcopal service. The other, from the Australian Season of Creation collection, has a more confessional style, and is more attentive to the whole animal realm.

Of course, the blessing of the animals is most meaningful when it is not the only time in the year when our churches pay attention to animals. The shared experience of a blessing service can be a wonderful opening to bring care for pets, livestock and wild animals into the ongoing ministries of the church.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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