“Presbyterians Today,” a national magazine of the Presbyterian Church USA, recently featured a cover story about churches responding to members for whom pets and other animals play an important role.
In addition to holding the popular Blessing of the Animals honoring St. Francis on his feast day each fall, some churches are beginning to plan services to recognize the place of animals in God’s creation and in the lives of people.
Some Jewish synagogues have gotten into the act, too, making the festival of “Tu b’Shevat, the “New Year for Trees,” a moment to consecrate creature companions.
There’s no reason any faith congregation whose members feel strongly about the role of animals in life on Earth cannot plan services for animal blessing any time of the year. They don’t have to focus on St. Francis, although he is probably best known for his special rapport with animals, reptiles, birds and other creatures.
Check out the following examples of events already going on in some Presbyterian churches.
▪ A church in Pittsburgh has begun regular memorial services for pets to give their owners an opportunity to share their grief after suffering a significant loss.
▪ Another congregation offers a four-week class for training therapy dogs to visit hospitals and nursing homes. The dogs offer comfort and love as they graciously share themselves with patients and residents.
▪ Yet another church co-sponsors an adoption fair for pets with the theme “We are equal parts of God’s creation.”
▪ My favorite: A Los Angeles congregation has a weekly service in the late afternoon to which pets are welcome, accompanied by their owners, of course. Dogs are served dog biscuits during the offertory.
▪ And yet another unusual faith-related response to the burgeoning interest in pets in this country is a web site called “Pray for Pets” where prayer requests for animals may be posted.
I recall an incident regarding a dog and an Episcopal Church in Durham from maybe 15 years ago.
The dog, her name was Lucy, was owned by a devout Episcopal couple and had endeared herself to this family in the way only a special pet can.
When Lucy died, the couple wanted her interred in the columbarium at their church near where their remains were expected to be placed. They asked the rector to do an appropriate service to honor this special canine companion. Their wishes were honored by a wise and compassionate minister who, although the Episcopal Church had no official liturgy for such a service, created one, helping to bring closure to the couple on the death of this beloved friend.
Although there might have been a ripple in the church as there usually is when somebody dares to take a step in a new direction, the incident did not spark a schism and soon the church grapevine settled back into growing grapes, or whatever it is a church grapevine is supposed to do.
Some Chapel Hill folks will remember the Rev. Gary Kowalski, who served as an interim minister at the Community Church for a year, and brought his interest in all God’s creatures and creation to this area.
One of several books he has authored, “Blessings of the Animals: Celebrating Our Kinship With all Creation” recounts many stories and legends about animals, traditional stories that often have historic connections or are just plain figments of the imagination. Fun as well as inspiring.
Here’s one I really like:
“Animals attended church regularly, once upon a time. An acquaintance of mine with Hispanic heritage shared a story she heard from her “abuelo.” or grandfather, who learned it from his own “padre.”
Long ago, it was the custom for dogs to attend Sunday mass with their masters. The hombres removed their hats and left them in the cloakroom before entering the chapel. The dogs removed their tails and did the same.
But one Sunday, a fire broke out. The men raced out of the church, grabbing their sombreros as they ran. The dogs likewise headed for the exit, but in their hurry many snatched up the wrong waggers.
That’s why they sniff each other’s butts to this day, trying to find their own tails. And after that unhappy incident, the dogs shied away from the “sanctuario.”
Kowalski, who has written liturgy for use in Blessing of the Animals services, left Chapel Hill last August and has retired to New Mexico where he now lives.
Contact Flo Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 910-361-4135.