This weekend offers a most unique moment in the sanctoral cycle as churches offer the annual blessing for pets, a lively and always unpredictable way to mark both the October 4th feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the gift of God’s creation.
On the steps and lawns of many churches, both Catholic and those of other traditions, proud pet owners will present their menageries while bemused priests and ministers stand ready, perhaps just a tad sceptical that Fluffy and Rover will sit still long enough to receive their blessings.
As entertaining as this once-a-year sight is, it also serves as a reminder of the timeless — and timely — inspiration St. Francis offers the modern world.
Francis’ love of animals is likely still the trait most often attributed to the 13th-century founder of the Franciscans and Poor Clares. Stories abound of Francis preaching to the birds and calming even fierce animals. His passion will resonate for many, particularly in North America, where pets are especially loved and valued.
But Francis’ appreciation of the animal world is only one aspect of his broader love for the environment. Centuries before the terms ecologist and environmentalist were coined, Francis recognized the created world as a priceless reflection of the beauty of God. Pope John Paul II expressed it nicely when he noted on World Environment Day in 1982 that St. Francis’ respect for creation should teach us “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.” In a world where environmental affronts such as global warming, declining air quality and the disappearing rain forest present vital challenges, Francis’ care for the gift of the natural world takes on renewed importance and inspiration.
Especially relevant today is Francis’ concern for those living in poverty, and his own willingness to live simply. The needs of the poor remain a burning challenge in the modern world, and we are called to help meet that ever-aching need. Simplifying our lifestyles both frees up funds to support charitable work, while also easing demands on the environment in ways such as reducing waste for disposal. The less we need, the more we can share and, with hope, find the kind of joy Francis found in his embrace of simplicity.
St. Francis is often cited as having said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” In a world where so many needs must still be addressed, the message of Francis remains vital today.
-Catherine Mulroney, Editor of Living with Christ, Canada’s Companion for Praying and Living the Eucharist