Which animals would St. Francis bless today?

Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

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You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the Blessing of the Animals offered by churches during October, usually near the Oct. 4th Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. In fact, non-Catholic denominations frequently conduct their own animal blessing services, and why not–what’s not to love?!? Heck, you don’t even have to be religious to find beauty in this simple, compassionate gesture.

Francis started life in the one per cent, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. But a vision redirected his trajectory, and he subsequently lived his life in service to the poorest of the 99%, showing a special affinity for animals, whom he considered his brothers and sisters.

It is said that, one day, while Francis was travelling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.” The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand.  ~Wikipedia

It’s also told that the good Saint intervened on behalf of townspeople who were terrorized by a ferocious wolf whose constant killing was motivated by hunger. Francis tracked him and, upon finding the wolf, made peace between him and the people, ultimately blessing the wolf. (How one wishes for a Second Coming of Francis here in Montana before the wolf hunting and trapping orgy begins!)

According to CBS News in New York, “(a) llama, a mini horse, falcons, dogs and even a camel were offered blessings at the Morningside Heights church to celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.” (See Ted the camel, a sanctuary resident, here.) Cats, turtles, goats, and no less than a kangaroo have been blessed.

But there’s a divide as stark as heaven and hell between the animals we know and love as individuals and the nameless billions–no less individuals than our beloved cats and dogs–who endure lives of abject suffering and face brutal deaths in our nation’s factory farms. What do we make of this but that our species has developed the ability to compartmentalize our regard for other animals: companions vs. farmed animals; furry kids vs. food; the animals we treat with kindness vs. the animals we eat in blindness. Matthew Scully, writing in Dominion: The power of man, the suffering of animals, and the call to mercy, puts it thus:

For many Christians, there is this one world in which man made in the image of God affirms the inherent goodness of animals…And then there is this other world, the world of reality in which people and industries are left free to do as they will without moral restraint or condemnation…There is the stirring world of “All Creatures of Our God and King,” the lyrics written by Saint Francis himself and often sung by Catholics filing out of Mass. And then there is the world of the Easter feast of lamb or ham or veal, to be enjoyed without the slightest thought of the privation and misery the lamb or pig or calf endured at human hands (Scully 17).

Pope John Paul II, during World Environment Day in 1982, said  “It is my hope that the inspiration of Saint Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of ‘fraternity’ with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created.” A Methodist church in Georgia wrote that St. Francis “lived his life with a profound love and respect for all creatures, human and animal alike.”

Regardless of our individual religious beliefs–or lack of them–we can surely agree that, when we look beyond our own dear companions, our kinship with animals has suffered. As a species, our love and respect is granted selectively. We exploit them in the show ring, the circus, the rodeo arena, the zoo; we breed them irresponsibly then kill the excess; we lock them away in the research lab; we condemn them to hellish existences without a shred of kindness then eat their tortured bodies and wear the skins that never knew a gentle touch.

If ever a saint was needed to intervene on behalf of animals, it is now.

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Watch an animal blessing service from 2010 here.

10 Responses

  1. Religions like Christianity foster human exceptionalism and this is the reason that animal suffering will continue as long as there is religion. St. Francis is a feel good myth based upon a mentally ill person who saw himself as a friend to animals rather than as a human animal in relation to other animals. In the end, Francesco did nothing to stop the grip of St. Augustin’s human exceptionalism from remaining the basis for the exploitation of animals as capital in Europe. What is needed is not another mentally ill “saint” but a change in human consciousness not based upon superstition

  2. John,
    Human beings are exceptional.

    As much as it might gall you and offend your ideology, religion is dead-on right in that regard.

    Saying humans are merely another species of animal is like trying to argue animals are another species of plants, because they are, after all, composed of the same elements.

    Or — to ride that train of logic all the way down the tracks to the terminal station — to try arguing that everything in known existence is high energy quarks, and nothing more.

    The point is, any emergent phenomenon or being (in this case, the human being) is more than merely the sum of its parts, or the process or stages of development it went through become what it is, or the mechanisms by which it becomes manifest.

    Be that as it may, even if I were to humor the flawed thinking that humans are animals and differ from other creatures not in kind, but only by degree, I see that the reasoning presented here is so self-contradictory, it literally eats itself.

    That being, if humankind is merely another animal, and because all animals are immensely biased and bigoted toward their own species (and often brutally so), then we can find no fault in humans doing exactly what all animals do — in putting their own before all others — and to hell with the suffering, misery or death of others. Self and species preservation are all that matters, screw the consequences.

    Instead, it is exactly because humans are exceptional, that we possess the capacity for a moral obligation to be kind and mindful toward animals and nature — and not just wantonly use and take — with no regard to the ethics or consequences of what we’re doing.

    It is exactly when we think and act like animals, that humans are at our worst, most immoral, most unethical and most destructive toward one another, as well as domestic animals, the ecosystem and the wild creatures which inhabit it.

    As to St. Francis, it seems apparent to me, his heart was in the right place, even if his thinking was a little, well… off.

  3. Hi HAL,

    Recognition that humans are animals does not imply that we “can find no fault in humans doing exactly what” other animals do—given that for some humans, they are capable of ethical reasoning. The ability to reflect and reason about ethics, while possibly unique to some (not all) humans, is perfectly compatible with the notion that humans are animals. So I see no contradiction.

  4. Spencelo — we have biological animal bodies, which are the product of biological evolution. Hence, we have some animal characteristics. Such as our sex drive, hunger drive, our emotions, and so forth.

    And on a certain level, we are related to everything in existence, just as everything is related to everything else — because it all started with high energy quarks.

    Be that as it may, a plant is not the same thing as an animal — in terms of kind — simply because they share the same compositional elements, and perhaps some similar manifest attributes.

    But again, you’re laboring under the assumption that an emergent being is nothing more than the sum of its parts, or the mechanisms by which it became manifest or might function in the temporal/bio/physical plane of existence.

    And regardless of all that, and even if you think we’re nothing but a species of animal — we’re still the only species that has taken the time to care a damn what happens to other species.

    And that alone is enough to make us exceptional.

  5. Great post Katharine. Thank you once again.

  6. Hi HAL,

    If humans are “exceptional” because we are the only animals to “care a damn” (ethically) about other animals, then I have no objection, because this understanding of human exceptionalism wouldn’t justify the various practices of animal exploitation (e.g., food, experimentation, hunting, entertainment, etc). Rather, we would be exceptional in a similar way that being rich is exceptional—more ability and means to assist the non-rich. St. Francis might agree (great post Kathleen).

  7. Spencelo,
    I agree in general spirit with you, if not in every instance or detail.

  8. […] Which animals would St. Francis bless today? […]

  9. Thoroughly enjoyed Kathleen. As usual you’ve managed to root out the contradictions and hypocrisy. Indeed while some folks were scheduling the blessings of their cats and dogs they were planning the “beef-tip” or “lamb” meal afterwards. (sadly)

    Certainly if there was a compassionate St. Francis today – He’d bless them all. No sincerely kind person would do any less!

  10. If human “exceptionality” was based on the way we show care for other species or some standard for ethical care for them then we have failed to meet anything close to that kind of “human” standard; in fact, there is little evidence, historical or otherwise, that we give a damn about our own species; so much for humanity as “emergent beings” when animals are used, abused ,exploited and treated cruelly in every imaginable and unimaginable way than ever before…just as we continue to do with our own so-called “higher” species!

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