Some saints' feast days are for people everywhere, not just Catholics. In fact, in the case of October 4th, the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, you don't even have to be people. St. Francis (c. 1181-1226), founder of the Franciscans, is the patron saint of animals, and in his honor a life-affirming, critter-loving ceremony called the Blessing of the Animals is celebrated each year at many a Christian altar.
In New York City, for example, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (the largest Episcopal cathedral in the world), there is an annual procession of animals--anything from fish (who must be carried in a bowl, of course) to an elephant (who naturally prefers to walk)--up the church steps and down the aisle to the altar, to be blessed there by the clergy. At Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, people gather annually with their cats, dogs, and other pets at the university chapel, for services in which clergy members at the altar lay a hand on the head of each animal and say a prayer on its behalf. At Olvera Street in Los Angeles, the Blessing of the Animals has been a colorful tradition (celebrated in March instead of October) since the street's inception in 1930.
Wherever it's observed, the Blessing of the Animals "reminds us of the sacredness of all life," in the words of Duke's director of religious life Debra K. Brazzel, "and provides an opportunity to celebrate the animals who share our lives." Indeed October 4th has come to be celebrated internationally as World Animal Day, when, in the words of the World Animal Day website, "animal welfare groups, sanctuaries and individuals throughout the world hold special events to heighten public awareness of animal issues and to encourage people to think about how we as humans relate to animals."
A while back I wrote some lines of rhymed verse, "To All Our Noble Kin," on our kinship with animals, from the standpoint that all Earth's creatures have evolved through modification by common descent. Evolutionary theory has been accepted by the Catholic Church, which sees "no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith" (with the proviso that man's soul was created by God) (Encyclical Humani generis, 1950), as well as by the Episcopal Church and most other mainline Protestant denominations. And evolutionary thought seems to inspire a more reverent attitude toward life than does creationist thinking, if judging by past statements of some "creation science" advocates. John N. Moore, for example, wrote in 1976 that "Personal dignity, value, and worth are lost in viewing a human being as simply a made-over animal, another 'evolved' member of a species." Against such denial of our "animal origins" (to use a creationist's dismissive term), and in honor of the Blessing of the Animals that will be celebrated this October at altars hither and yon, I offer, in closing, "To All Our Noble Kin."
What motivates creationists? I must
Conclude it's more than scripture; they aren't just
Defending literalism. No, they seem
To suffer from an ailment that I deem
To be acute in humans. Have you heard
Of "pithecophobia"? That's the word,
As Lewin tells us, for this malady:
It means "the fear of apes, especially
As relatives or forebears." If we choose
To think man's some made-over ape, we lose
Our human worth and dignity--that's what
Creationists are saying. But that's not
The case at all. It isn't fair to say
Man's "nothing but an animal" today
Because he and all animals are kin.
Man isn't lowered by that kinship, in
E. O. Wilson's words, rather it has brought
Nonhumans higher status. Abstract thought
And verbal speech are faculties that we
Alone may share as humans. Let us see
Our fellow creatures always, though, the way
That Charles Darwin did, which is to say
That when all beings are not thought to be
Special creations, when we rather see
Them as the lineal descendants of
Some prehistoric life forms, then above
All else that we might say about them, they
Seem "to become ennobled." That's the way
He saw his fellow beings; he could call
It "a truly wonderful fact" that all
Life forms are kin. He wrote of "Life's Great Tree,"
Forever branching, beautiful, and he
Said, "There is grandeur in this view of life."
And I agree. All beings, born to strife,
Share kinship by descent; this knowledge should
Encourage us not only to be good
To other human beings, but to all
Our noble kin: "All creatures great and small."
Alexander, Cecil Frances. 1848. "All Things Bright and Beautiful."
AmericanCatholic.org. 1997. Blessing of the Animals in the City of St. Francis. St. Francis of Assisi.
_____. 2004. Pet Blessings Around the United States. St. Francis of Assisi.
Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray. Facs. of 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Ecker, Ronald L. 1996. "The Astronomer's Tale," note 31. The Evolutionary Tales: Rhyme and Reason on Creation/Evolution, Rev. ed. Palatka, FL: Hodge & Braddock.
Lewin, Roger. 1987. Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Moore, John N. 1976. Questions and Answers on Creation/Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Book House.
Stubbee, Melinda. 1997. "Duke Chapel Schedules Popular Blessing of the Animals Service." Duke News Service, Sept. 24.
Tornquist, Cynthia. 1997. "Animals Blessed in Tribute to Saint Francis of Assisi." CNN Interactive, October 5.
Wagner, Jason. 1997. "Faithful Gather from Durham Area for the Blessing of the Animals." The Chronicle, Oct. 6.
Wilson, Edward O. 1985. Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Copyright 1998, 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker
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