Francis of Assisi and a blessing of the animals


by David Romanik


After Francis of Assisi died in October of 1226, many voices in the Church called for his immediate canonization. Less than two years later, Pope Gregory IX pronounced Francis a saint and laid the cornerstone for the Basilica of Saint Francis. Even by the relatively relaxed standards of the medieval Church, Francis’ path to sainthood was remarkably expeditious. On one level, Francis’ rapid canonization is understandable: the Franciscan order was enormously popular and it was politically expedient for the Vatican to demonstrate its affinity for Francis and those who followed in his footsteps. At another level, the haste with which Francis was made a saint is somewhat mystifying. Indeed, while most saints were remembered as spiritual superheroes, Francis’ biography is striking for its mundanity: he spent most of his life in Assisi caring for the poor and dispossessed. The handful of typically “saintly” moments in his life include his sermon to the birds and his stigmata. In some ways, Francis was made a saint simply because he behaved exactly as a Christian is supposed to behave: he allowed his life to be completely transformed by the grace of God that has been made known in Jesus Christ.

Like many Episcopal churches, Heavenly Rest will observe the Feast of Saint Francis with a “blessing of the animals.” Parishioners and members of the community will bring their pets and animal companions to receive a word of blessing at 5:00 in the Courtyard on October 4. The rationale for this tradition is ostensibly obvious: Francis, after all, preached to the birds and had appreciation for the beauty of creation. There is, however, a deeper logic behind this tradition. Francis devoted his life to caring for those who could not care for themselves: the least, the last, and the lost. His interest in animals was, in many ways, symbolic of his willingness to pay attention to those whom society and the Church found it easy to ignore. The blessing of the animals, in other words, is less about the saintly Francis who preached to the birds and more about the mundane Francis who had compassion for the lowly. When we bring our animals to be blessed, we demonstrate our intention to care for those who cannot care for themselves: from the animals in our homes to the poor and dispossessed in our communities. Our service on that first weekend of October is an opportunity to pay attention to those whom our society finds it easy to ignore. As we bring our dogs, cats, lizards, and birds to be blessed in honor of Saint Francis, those animals will become icons of the love and grace that can transform our lives, just as they transformed the life of the poor friar from Assisi.

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