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Blessing Our Pets

For over 30 years, The Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis has welcomed animals into their pews for a blessing. The tradition of blessing the animals takes place on the first Sunday in October and commemorates the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi — the patron saint of peace, ecology, and animals — and his love for all creation.

“In the middle ages, people brought their animals to the church. They were not pets; they were farm animals. But translate that whole experience to a city, they are the animals that live within our homes.” —Johan van Payrs, director of liturgy and sacred arts

A group of women stand on the lawn outside of the Basilica of St. Mary waiting for a blessing of the animals on October 6, 2013. Image by Megan Bender/On Being.

Growing up Catholic, I attended a private school named after St. Francis. I was aware of the feast day and even had a long-standing affinity for partaking in the ritual blessing. It never felt right, though, without a little blessing of my own — until about four months ago.

I bought my first pet, a Persian cat named Pierre. The unconditional love I receive from him on a regular basis has brought a unique joy to my life, and I rejoice in dedicating an occasional Sabbath to him. I must admit that the idea of trying to bring him beyond my apartment is nothing short of anxiety-inducing. Nevertheless, I indulged in the opportunity to meet the holy animals of the Twin Cities area as compensation.

Owners and their pets enter the Basilica for the official blessing of the animals on October 6, 2013. Image by Megan Bender/On Being.

When I finally took a seat near the back of the church, I peered around. The pews were full. Bold marble arches framed the intricate dome above the altar. Mesmerizing. My eyes groped to translate all the statues of the apostles and saints, and colors reflecting off the stained glass windows.

Image by Megan Bender/On Being.

Once the service began, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the uncontrollable wagging tails, synchronized with the choir. Owners loving glanced away from their hymnals to placate their hyperactive pet. The mass was unpredictable at best.

At first, it was strange to see and hear such a sacred space filled with overly excited dogs craving attention with loud barks. The moment I let go of my confusion over the spectacle, the unlikely church-goers brought a smile to my face.

A church helper blesses a dog. Image by Megan Bender/On Being.

The barks slowly faded into the processional hymn resonating, “All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing: Alleluia!

Watching the owners line up with their pets in hand waiting to be blessed, felt just as traditional as the ritual of communion. “In the Catholic tradition, we bless anything and everything,“ Mr. Van Payrs reminded me. “Everything we interact with we have a blessing for.”

Owner cradles her newly adopted kitten named George. Image by Megan Bender/On Being.

Whether it is our pets that enrich our lives or our favorite barista that serves us our daily morning coffee, we ought to feel blessed for our ritual interactions with all of creation.

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