One weekend a couple of months ago, I went to a street/music festival in Chicago. One of the sites for the festival’s concerts was an Episcopal church; hanging outside the church was an enormous banner advertising the annual pet blessing, more than a month away. I came to learn that this particular neighborhood had been named the most dog-friendly in Chicago, with the highest population/concentration of dogs in the city (and, not coincidentally, the highest concentration of rats in the city, due to careless dog owners).
I had to give the church credit for knowing its surrounding demographic, and for doing outreach through pet blessing; it’s one of a number of various events or activities they host to stay engaged with the neighborhood. The banner advertised, of course, that all were welcome to attend—though I’m not sure why you’d put a banner out if all weren’t welcome, but it never hurts to emphasize the point. The banner made no mention of St. Francis, or the connection of him or his feast day to the pet blessing.
There was part of me that wanted to attend if it weren’t for my own Sunday morning obligation (plus the only pets I currently have are dust bunnies under the bed). I thought it would be interesting to try and get at least an anecdotal sense of why people brought their pets to be blessed, if these people were members at this church or another church/synagogue/mosque, and particularly how they understood the blessing’s purpose or work. It would also have been interesting to find out from the church staff if this seemed to be an effective evangelization (vs. recruitment) tool. Maybe I’ll attend in retirement.
I’ve been able to watch, within my own lifetime, the effect of the surrounding culture on the pet blessing ritual. I can remember a time when there were no “cat birthday” or “Merry Xmas from the dog” or “death of pet” greeting cards. Not that these are necessarily bad things, but the world of commerce (as it usually does) seems to have tapped into lucrative areas of pet-related enterprises that had gone untapped. In the ecclesial world, a parallel ramp up has occurred with the pet blessing. My recollection is that originally it was largely Roman Catholic parishes that offered it on or near the feast of St. Francis, and our Protestant sisters and brothers caught on. (I’m not sure about our Jewish or Muslim sisters and brothers, though I have come to learn that the “bark mitzvah” is an actual thing for your dog.)
Soon enough, pet blessings were being offered—unmoored from St. Francis—and as the banner outside the Episcopal church illustrated, our cultural tendency toward “pre-joicing” (do it earlier than anybody else) has also come into play. In a relatively short time frame, I’ve witnessed the same thing that has happened to other holidays with Christian origins—Hallowe’en and Christmas in particular. (I realize that many Christian celebrations—our Eucharist, for example—were likewise once moored in older Jewish, Canaanite, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman customs. This is just part of how religious anthropology functions.)
Mind you, I’m not a pet-hater. I have had pets and have gotten attached to them, loved them, and experienced a real sense of grief when they departed. But I’m also only one generation removed from agrarian life. Both my parents were raised on and worked on farms, and I have relatives in my generation who pursued farming and livestock raising. So my attitude about pets is informed by that basic understanding that pets are animals. I do recall regular blessings of the fields and livestock, a custom that goes back to pre-Christian times, and is still found in our Book of Blessings. Like all things created by God, pets—or any animals—can be blessed. Still, when I was recently asked to write a hymn text about the spiritual aspects of pets (“don’t use the word ‘owner’ ” I’d been told), I had to decline because this is completely outside my experience or perspective.
What I am most intrigued about in regard to the pet-blessing upswing (I have a hunch that this upswing may be more pronounced in major urban areas) is the quickness with which it has become detached from its origins in the feast of Francis, and how the world of pet-related commerce seems to have led it along.
Perhaps these events are largely or exclusively attracting the already-churched; maybe churches are also using the occasion of pet blessing to emphasize the sacredness of all creation, and promote eco-stewardship; the Roman Catholic ones, at least, adding a focus on Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ and exhorting everyone to a St. Francis-like rejection of wealth and material goods.
I grasp that a “get ’em in the door” approach has its merits, but we might need a new category called “innocent outreach” or some such for these events that we tell ourselves in a self-congratulatory manner are evangelization. If there’s no real connection to Christian discipleship, to what people will learn/discover when or if they come through the door a second time, then we might need to search for better, more honest tools for genuine evangelization.
All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice, and with us sing:
St. Francis, pray for us!