BROOKINGS – St. Paul’s Episcopal Church recently held its annual Blessing of the Animals ceremony on St. Francis Day, Oct. 4, with nine dogs and three cats attending. Each animal and their owners received a blessing from the Rev. Larry Ort, rector at St. Paul’s.
Churches of many denominations hold an animal blessing service to celebrate what St. Francis of Assisi started almost 800 years ago. St. Francis introduced the idea that human beings are only one of a myriad of creations of God and all are blessed in God’s eyes. Today, St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment.
Until recently, the Blessing of the Animals focused on pets or companion animals. The message was to take care of them as you would take care of yourself. Show gratitude; they are gifts from God. “I always enjoy the Blessing of the Animals. Our pets are such faithful companions; they bring us so much joy,” Ort said.
“Today, the ceremony has a broader meaning in some churches,” Chuck Berry, chair of St. Paul’s Natural Cathedral Committee, said. “The focus is not only on pets but on all animals and our stewardship of all creatures on Earth.”
Theologians say that this broader idea is what St. Francis had in mind. He called creatures his brothers and sisters. He emphasized that creation includes more than humankind and preached that humans and creatures are in the same relationship with God. He found in all created things some reflection of the divine.
This idea is expressed in Psalm 19, which says that the Lord speaks through the masterpiece of Creation.
“Yes, animals have a spiritual message that you will understand if you are mindful of the wonder of creation, but animals have a practical message for us also,” Berry, a retired professor of fish and wildlife science at SDSU, wrote in the October issue of St. Paul’s newsletter. “Biologists say that animals speak to us in other ways. When biologists study animal populations, they are interpreting a message from the animals about the health of their habitat – the health of the Earth.”
As a practical example, biologists use the kinds and numbers of bugs on the bottom of the Big Sioux River as an indicator of water quality. A much bigger example is the number of species facing extinction. The U.S. has an Endangered Species Act to protect these rare species and try to help them recover.
The Endangered Species Act is often criticized for impeding human progress, or for being ineffective.
“It’s complicated,” Berry said. “I think that the Endangered Species Act holds us accountable for the survival of all parts of the Earth community, especially ‘the least of them’ who are most endangered. When we discuss saving a rare species that seems to have no value, it gives us an opportunity to dig deeper into our own values and motivations.”
Ort said, “As I look out my office window, the birds gathered at the feeder provide a welcome respite from my work. This year I have watched a mother cardinal teach two youngsters how to eat sunflower seeds. We need to stop to reflect upon a world without animals – it would be very impoverished – and we need to remember this world also belongs to them. God has blessed creation. Let us bless the animals.”
St. Paul’s was established in Brookings in 1893 and became a parish in 1952. Sunday services are held at 10 a.m.; weekly suppers and youth education are regularly held on Wednesday. The church is located at 726 Sixth St. For more information, call 692-2617.