116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MARION — With dogs on one side and cats on the other, only a pair of gerbils parted the small sea of pets gathered outside Lutheran Church of the Resurrection on Sunday.
There, dog barks and cat meows were hushed as Pastor Jeff Frohner led the congregation through the story of Saint Francis of Assisi — the patron saint of animals and ecology — along with a prayer and a personal blessing with a sprinkle of water on each pet gathered.
Though it was Frohner’s first time blessing the animals in Marion, it’s not his first time at the rodeo. Experience has taught him to use an evergreen branch to sprinkle water as a precaution for his hands in the unlikely event of a nippy dog.
When he began ministering nearly 30 years ago, he said it would have been rare to see a congregation doing this. Over the years, it has become increasingly popular in Lutheran churches.
“In a time when there’s so much bad news, we stop and remember that in the Jewish-Christian tradition, we hold the fact that the world is good and God created the world good,” he said. “Animals do bring a real sense of joy. People are searching, especially in difficult times, for access points to that joy.”
Origins of the tradition
Though the celebration is done to commemorate the feast of St. Francis each October, it’s as much celebration of pets as it is a call to ecology. An Italian friar in the 12th century, St. Francis stopped to preach to the birds, who sat and listened to him instead of flying away, as the story is told. He then regretted that he didn’t stop to preach to the animals more often, Frohner said.
“I wasn’t there, but I have no trouble in being reminded how special animals are,” Frohner said on Sunday.
What it means to pet owners
To those gathered, the blessing took on different meanings with their pets — many of whom were being blessed at the ceremony for the first time.
“I’ve often wondered if pets had a place in heaven,” said Darlene Hatch of Marion, whose Shih Tzu, Daisy, came in her stroller with a lace doily repurposed as a prayer cloth on her head.
After playing a significant part in Hatch’s life over the last six years, the blessing makes her feel better about Daisy’s place in life — on earth and in heaven.
For Hiawatha resident Linda Fottral — new to the congregation — the blessing of her 17-year-old cat, BJ, is a confirmation that he’s part of the family.
“They say all dogs go to heaven, but they don’t say anything about cats,” she said, laughing.
For Barb Hazelton’s labradoodle, Maggie, the blessing provided reassurance that God is watching over the dog before she’s boarded at a kennel during their vacation. The Cedar Rapids resident, a member of the Lutheran congregation for more than 40 years, remembers only one or two animal blessings over her years in the church.
And for others, it’s a reminder of the creation that connects everything beyond the confines of their homes.
Zorro, the 12-year-old tuxedo cat, had a chance to get out of the house for something other than a vet visit. Owner Mary Hajek said the blessing is extra special this year, after losing a cat last year.
“It’s just to remind people of the creation of God and to treat them respectfully,” Hajek said. “They’re not there to be used and abused by us.”
In light of the pandemic, the blessing of pets near and dear to hearts has taken on a new meaning.
“Especially with older people, it’s almost like a child of theirs,” said Deacon Paul Zimmerman of St. Pius X Catholic Church, who has helped bless the animals in Cedar Rapids for several years. “Especially after losing a spouse, that pet becomes another person in the family. They just bring a peace into the family.”
And in isolation, animals are sometimes the only source of love and comfort to some humans. Frohner said that love deserves to be celebrated.
A deeper connection to the earth
For those involved in blessing the animals for years, even the less common pets brought to blessings — snakes, lizards, birds, ponies, chickens, goats and even stuffed animals toted in by children — serve as a reminder of God’s gifts to the earth. With that, many are reminded of how physically and spiritually interconnected everything on earth is.
“Every creature that’s alive tells us a little bit about God,” said Sister Nancy Hoffman, one of the founders of Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha. “The Scripture is one of the primary sources of revelation, but the earth is also one of the primary sources of revelation.”
Often, she said the latter tends to be overlooked by Christians, leading some to respect the earth less than they should. Part of the mission at Prairiewoods, which is sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, is to teach others how to live a life of environmental sustainability and preserve God’s gifts on earth.
“As each species of animal starts to become extinct, we know that takes a little bit of our knowledge away about who God is,” Hoffman said. “Each creature teaches us some individual characteristics of God.”
Twenty-five years ago, Prairiewoods established a tradition of blessing the animals even before it caught on at some churches. In addition to giving folks a chance to share the pets they love with others, it gives educators the chance to raise awareness about endangered and abused animals.
“By doing the blessing of the animals, it’s more than just our trying to bless them. It’s about acknowledging the blessing that they are to us,” she said. “The feast (of St. Francis) is more than a blessing of the animals — they just epitomize it for us.”
Like the earth, Hoffman said animals often give without expecting anything in return. In doing so, she said they express qualities of God like love, generosity and patience.
When people learn about how connected animals are to the other parts of nature, she said it improves their spiritual lives and holistic health. Frohner and Hoffman both said that the blessing provides a new access point to spiritually reach those who may not typically go to church.
“We feel that there are many paths to God. Our mission is to provide the space to find that connection.” Hoffman said. “We tend to think about revelation as something that happened a long time ago when the Bible was written. But revelation is being revealed every single day.”
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