A heavenly kind of treat

Area pet blessings draw all creatures great and small

October 07, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

It's been said that families that pray together stay together, and through this weekend, many homes will include their four-legged - or feathered, finned or scaly - family members in worship.

Around Baltimore and the nation, Christian and some Jewish congregations honor creatures great and small with blessing services, a reflection of people's devotion to pets and, more recently, society's growing environmental awareness. Many are scheduled near Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and ecology.

"Everyone has a kind of desire to seek God's favor in their stewardship of their pets," said the Rev. Mark Bialek, who planned to bring his Italian greyhound, Holly, to an animal blessing yesterday at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Fullerton.

To some theologians and clergy, animal blessings - usually short and held outside for practical reasons - reflect their belief that God created the world, and that humans have a responsibility to care for it.

The blessings, often followed by fellowship over dog biscuits, also tap into owners' attachment to pets, a relationship that some scholars say has a spiritual dimension.

Nearly two-thirds of American households - 71.1 million homes - include a pet, according to the 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey. Last year, consumers spent $38.5 billion on companion animals, a sum expected to grow by $2 billion this year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Some doting owners even buy kosher food and Christmas or Hanukkah gifts for their pampered pets.

As early as 1614, a blessing for animals was included in a Roman Catholic priest manual, the Rev. Andrew Linzey, a theologian and director of the England's Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, said in an e-mail. What's new is the trend toward worship services focusing on animals, said Linzey, author of Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care.

At Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal School in Mount Vernon, students, parishioners and neighbors brought pets to the church's front steps Thursday for a blessing.

"It's a mini Noah's ark," said the Rev. Frederick Thomas.

With nine dogs, four cats, three hamsters and two birds present, the humans sang hymns and listened to Scripture before Thomas sprinkled holy water on the animals. As he moved among the crowd, the dogs flinched at the water, and the priest remarked that cats and birds aren't fond of holy water.

This 15-minute service "helps teach ... a reverence for God's creation," he said. "It's a reminder that animals are part of God's creation and we're called upon to treat them with kindness."

At another event Thursday, clergy from Washington's National Cathedral blessed strays at an animal shelter and led a pet blessing that evening at the church featuring animals up for adoption.

Animal blessings also cross denominational and faith lines.

For several years, Temple Oheb Shalom in Park Heights has blessed pets, said Rabbi Steven M. Fink. About 125 pets - guinea pigs, iguanas, snakes, birds, dogs and cats - have attended with their owners, some of whom were not Jewish.

"I realized there was nothing like this in the Jewish community," Fink said. "There was no ritual that we had to acknowledge that pets were an important part of people's lives."

To connect the celebration with Jewish tradition, the service, which is today, is timed to coincide with the Torah reading of the story of Noah and his ark, Fink said.

During the blessing at Oheb Shalom, owners introduce new pets, pray for those that are ill and have a moment of silence for those that died during the year, the rabbi said. They end with songs and treats for pets and pet owners. This year's pet blessing will have a particular poignancy for the rabbi, because one of his family's cats, Mitzy, died two months ago.

"It really does acknowledge that these pets are a part of our families, and it's important for us as clergy to see people in all their different situations and get to know their entire families," Fink said.

And to many, the death of a pet is truly the loss of a family member.

Bialek said he once led a prayer service for a family whose cat was dying.

And the Rev. Dale Dusman of St. Mark's Lutheran Church on St. Paul Street in the Barclay neighborhood has used up several boxes of pet sympathy cards sent to grieving owners.

"It's appropriate to pray for the way pets help to enhance our lives," said Dusman, who led a pet blessing yesterday.

At St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church in Canton, 30 to 50 people were expected at the service yesterday on the church's front steps, and a similar number are likely to come to O'Donnell Square for an interfaith pet blessing today, said the Rev. Ross Syracuse, a member of a Franciscan religious order.

In other years, animal guests have included ferrets, hermit crabs, white mice and a chameleon. This year, Syracuse, a vegetarian, will bring his parakeets, Buddy, Frankie, Sweetie and Gigi.

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