WORLD Animal Day has been celebrated every year on October 4th since 1925. On this day animal life in all its forms is celebrated and special events are planned at different locations the world over. October 4th was originally chosen because it is the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, a nature lover and the patron saint of animals and the environment.

One of the services that is often offered by thousands of Christian churches – Catholic and Protestant alike – is the Blessing of the Animals. Animals are our companions on earth, be they house pets, domestic livestock or wild creatures. We receive much from them: comfort, protection and wonder, as well as labor and other aids for our sustenance. So we ask God to bless them and to make us wise enough to take proper care of all creatures, great and small.

For a number of years I too celebrated this service out in the open, and I can assure you that most pets received the blessing and the spray of holy water with great dignity. I do have to admit, though, that some cats and dogs flattened their ears a bit as the drops of holy water lightly pelted them. But the owners were very happy and I am sure they were also receiving some spiritual benefits.

Unfortunately a Blessing of the Animals service could not be held last year nor will it be held this year because of Covid-19, although I have heard that the parishes of some countries have organized socially distanced drive-through services. As far as I could find out through the internet, pets kept safely inside their owners’ cars will be doused with holy water by priests wearing protective face masks.

As we know, among many other wonderful things, St. Francis was known for his love for animals and his uncanny ability to connect with them. It is said that he treated animals with the utmost respect, love and care. Perhaps one of the most famous incidents that illustrates the Saint’s love towards nature is recounted in the Little Flowers, a collection of legends and folklore that sprang up after Francis’ death. It is said that one day, while the Poverello was travelling with some companions, they happened upon a place where birds filled the trees. Francis said to his companions, “Wait for me while I go to preach to my brothers and sisters, the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away, even when he went among them touching their heads.

The substance of the sermon that Francis made was this: “My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love Him. He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God’s guidance and protection”. At this the birds began to spread their wings, stretch their necks and gaze at Francis, rejoicing and praising God in a wonderful way according to their nature. Having finished his sermon, Francis reminded them again to always give praise to God, made the sign of the cross, and gave them leave to fly away.

What Francis desired to teach his companions, and therefore also all of us, is that all animals are gifts from God, and that therefore we should treasure them and not exploit them. God created us, God created them, and God created us to have a bond with them. They are living creatures and should be treated with wisdom and kindness, not with cruelty.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated”. By this standard, are we doing well?

Updated on October 01 2021