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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Blessing of the Animals

kitty in a box
(personal photo, earthchick)

We have such a fun question today!

My church governing board has expressed an interest in having a “Blessing of the Animals.” Our church is located in a semi-rural suburb of a major metropolitan area. In our particular town, lot sizes are limited to 2 acres or more, so the neighbors (none of whom are members) envision themselves as ‘gentlemen farmers’ or ‘urban ranchers.’ My congregation would like to reach out to the surrounding community in a welcoming way and thinks this might be a way to do it.

I am a 7th generation Presbyterian who knows NOTHING about such services. I’ve never seen one (other than on the ‘Vicar of Dibley’) and don’t quite know where to start. I’d love to hear from those who hold such services where you get your resources, your liturgy. Is it held at a particular time of year? Are ALL animals welcome or just smaller animals? Inside or outside? During regular worship or as a special service? How do you keep the dogs apart and the dogs away from the cats and vice-versa? If you had the choice to make, would you start such a tradition or are you continuing something that was started before you arrived in your present call?

Perhaps I should confess that I still miss my 18-year-old indoor cat who died 2 years ago and I’m not much of a dog person, so I enter this whole project with some hesitation.

We have a wealth of experience among our matriarchs, who were very happy to share their resources.

Muthah+ writes:

I am an Episcopalian and I can assure you that there is no official service for the Blessing of the Animals. The Vicar of Dibly not withstanding.  Usually such celebrations happen around or on the Feast of St. Francis (Oct. 4) for obvious reasons.  What is fun is that you can make of such a service what you want, or what you need.  Readings that talk about the greatness of the animals.  Songs that remind people of their childhood.  Get the parish involved into bringing their animals. 

Cats need to be in cages.  Dogs need to be on leash.  Birds need to be caged too for the sake of the kitties. It was the snake that gave me a little pause. (pardon the pun). If you are a large group, put the cats in one place and the dogs in another.  Remember that many of our pets are predators and some of our pets are prey and will basically know real fear if placed near each other.  (The wisdom of a veterinarian parishioner at my last parish)  But be prepared for messes, fights and have experienced animal helpers on hand so that you can address the whole parade with confidence and light heartedness.

If you want to have it on a Sunday morning, make it in the spring or fall when the weather is nice so that you can go outside for some or all of the service.  This isn't, of course, about the animals; it is about their owners. 

Have fun.  You will gain incredible insight into your parishioners by seeing them with their pets.  I have always held that the "Dog Whisperer" has given me as much insight into parish dynamics as Ed Friedman.

Terri, who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice, offers:
As a priest in the Episcopal Church I have celebrated many Blessing of the Animals. We usually have the blessing day sometime in early October, around the “Feast Day” of St Francis, which in the Episcopal Church is designated as Oct. 4. Here is a link to the prayers and scripture readings assigned to the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Most of the churches I have served at have preferred to host their blessing of the animals/celebration of St. Francis on Sunday morning in the midst of a regular Sunday service. This is complicated since it means the animals are in the church and, being Episcopal, we also have a weekly Eucharist. Sometimes I have held a special service, outside, on an evening or a Saturday afternoon instead on Sunday morning. Holding it outside is always risky because of the weather, so being prepared to hold it indoors is important.

I have found that having it indoors in the midst of Sunday morning services is simple. There is a bit of holy chaos, not unlike a baptism with babies, in that there might be more noise and movement. I also do the blessing at the point in the service when I would do the baptism, or the wedding vows, which enables us to follow a typical pattern of worship: Congregation gathers in their respective pews – allowing extra room for dogs and cats to not be too close to one another. I encourage people to bring cats, reptiles, and other animals in crates or containers. Dogs must be on leashes. The altar party processes in as usual, followed by the opening prayers, scripture, and a SHORT homily on St. Francis and why a blessing of the animals. Then we offer the instructions for coming forward for the blessing.

In small churches I, along with anyone else designated to offer blessings and prayers in the congregation, go into the pews and bless the animals where they are. In larger churches, or when outside, I have had the people line up, as for communion, and come forward to  various “stations” where the designated people will bless the animals. The blessing itself is simple: I lay hands on the animal, if possible, or if in a crate, I lay hands over. I ask the name of the pet and say a prayer of blessing: giving thanks for the blessing of this animal in the life of the human and the human in the life of the pet. And I ask God to bless its life.  It usually goes really smooth and well, even if there is some barking or animal fussing.  After the blessing people return to their pews and the service continues until complete. For the Eucharist we repeat what we just did for the blessing – either I go to them or they line up again, pets in tow, to receive communion. It actually works. I’ve done it for ten years....

Large animals, like horses, I ask to remain outside and I come to them.

Some pointers: I eliminate every component of worship that I can – Nicene Creed, Prayers of the People, etc. or keep the prayers really short. In essence the blessing of the animals takes the place of those elements. I preach a very short homily, five minutes, just enough to get give folks some bearing on the day. I advertise for a long time so folks know the event is coming.

Rev Honey, who blogs occasionally at Somewhere South of Southwhere, writes:
I instituted a “blessing of the animals” service about 10 years ago, and we hold it about every other year.  The whole event from start to finish is about 40 minutes long.

We schedule them on Sunday afternoon, closest to the date of the commemoration of Saint Francis on October 4th.  We hold the service outside in the front yard, which sits back from the road.  We create a simple service, with participants introducing their pets, a reading from Genesis 1, and offering prayers of thanksgiving and a blanket blessing for the animals’ health and well-being.  We have often had treats for the pets – dog biscuits, cat nibbles, pieces of apple and lettuce, and cookies and lemonade or ice water for the humans.

We do communicate clearly that we expect each pet-owner to keep their animal(s) under control.  In the past we have had cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, fish, and a turtle.  It has been a joyful event which builds community, and very meaningful to the people who participate.

And Diane Roth, who blogs at Faith in Community, adds:
I have done a few Animal Blessing Services in the last few years, and they can be a good way to invite the community.  We have always had them as a separate service, on Sunday afternoon, not at regular worship time, but I do know a few churches that have done them at their regular worship.  As for worship resources, I checked out Roman Catholic, Methodist and Lutheran Resources.  I keep the worship component as simple as possible, as just having animals around makes it complicated enough!  I benefitted greatly by having a team to help me put together the event.  The helped with logistics (should we hold it indoors or outdoors?/ should we have a fellowship time afterwards?/what about provision for 'accidents'?)  As for keeping the animals separate, my husband's church has different areas for dogs, cats, horses, and "other."  They also have a welcome team when you first come in to give each person a plastic bag, and direct you to the appropriate area. 

At my church, the bulk of the service is held outside.  This especially seems to work for music.  We have a small chapel, and we bring the animals inside for an individual blessing at the very end of the service.  But some churches have the whole service outside.  There's a large Episcopal church in our community that has a very well-known animal blessing service; they have their whole service inside, I believe. 


Wow! What fantastic and helpful answers. I personally have never offered a Blessing of the Animals service, and now I'm really eager to do one. Others of you may have more resources or input to share in the comments section. I would like to follow up on one aspect that hasn't been covered. The original questioner mentioned her own grief over losing a beloved pet. Knowing that there will be some in our congregations who have recently lost an animal companion, is this ever addressed in a Blessing of the Animals service? Have any of you ever provided an option for people who have recently lost a pet to bring a picture or other memento to have blessed, or do you otherwise include their grief in your prayers or rituals? 

Thank you matriarchs for sharing from your experiences! The rest of you, please do share in the comments section. And our question queue remains pretty low, so if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, please send them to us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. We sometimes hold ours outside on the church lawn. This allows us to keep the animals separate and makes the church board happy. When I've done it in the sanctuary it was important to have a congregational song after the laying of hands - we touched them all except the tarantula who would have escaped from her box. During that song my colleague and I left the sanctuary to wash our hands with soap and water before the Eucharist.
    And if you're doing it on St. Francis day, the Canticle of Brother Sun (one of his best known compositions) is especially appropriate and for me, mandatory.

  2. A spring alternative might be on or around the rogation days (see here), the three days before the Ascension. Some churches celebrate these on the Sunday prior.

    The rogation days focus on stewardship and creation more broadly, so you could bless the animals and also the land.

    I am not sure what traditions other than Roman Catholic and Episcopal/Anglican mark the rogation days, but there may well be prayer and hymn resources available to augment those for Blessing of the Animals.

  3. Another thing that I have encouraged people to do is if their pet isn't likely to enjoy the outing, I ask them to bring a picture. Also, I have once in a while blessed a child's stuffed animal pet, becaue that's the only kind of pet they had.

    The coolest Blessing of the Animals service is at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. When I lived in NYC, I went to that service. Imagine dogs howling with Paul Winter!! Gorgeous.

  4. Karla, I love the idea of blessing children's stuffed animals! Wonderful.

  5. Great idea! I've taken part in one of these a couple of times and am planning our first one in October (the Feast of St. Francis). I don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but you might want to keep in mind that some Franciscans are not at all happy that the Feast Day of their beloved founder has become associated with this, If you have Franciscans nearby you might want to be sensitive to that.

    There are such great ideas here, and I have little to add other than to let you know that the Anglican Church of Canada has a supplement called "Occasional Celebrations" which has a whole section for "Blessings of the Created Order" that includes Home Animals, Farm Animals, Forests, Mines, Fisheries, and Seeds at Planting Time. It also includes home blessings etc.

    A friend of mine who ministers in a semi-rural community has done a blessing of Seeds at Planting time and it was a wonderful outreach. It was held on the farm of a member who invited all their farming friends to bring a small bag of their seed along to be blessed and then followed it with a pot luck.

    If you'd like to take a look at the Order of Service, I'm more than happy to send it along.

  6. I had the privilege of being invited to create a Blessing of the Animals for my regional dog breed club, which they made part of their Annual Meeting in 2004. The response was so positive that after Hurricane Katrina, and the stories of people and their animals both during and after the storm, we held another Blessing during a club event. I worked on that one with a Rabbi, a really wonderful experience. All of this is to say that you can have an event without having it be so heavy on liturgy and explicitly Christian in words that it makes the neighbors feel left out rather than gathered in by the church.

    I've also done a brief service of blessing at my new call, more explicitly Christian. We held it on a Sunday afternoon. I would really love to do one on Sunday morning, or alternatively on the day our Pet Pantry is open, so that's on my plan list for this year.

    The resource I used as a starting place was Animal Rites by John Linzey.

  7. The church I serve has a food pantry for pets, designed to serve pet owners in need. We offer cat and dog food and cat litter and occasionally food for other small pets depending on donations. It's a program that's been in place for almost 18 months, and our Missions Committee is developing a how-to for sharing with others as we learn what works and what doesn't. We currently serve 36 households/individuals with economic needs and beloved pets, a significant ministry for a church with a membership of 140 or so. We do receive donations from people in the community, which helps. One older couple asked family members and friends celebrating their birthdays and anniversary to bring donations for the pantry in lieu of gifts. A family in our church did the same thing for their 7-year-old son's birthday. You may read more about it here: Pet Place Pantry.

  8. The Blessing of the Animals is one of my favorite services! We have it every year on or around the time of St. Francis' Day. Our service is held in the afternoon in our outdoor chapel.

    This kind of service is a good way to reach out to the local community if you advertise it in some way. We have it on our church sign and always get a few neighbors who walk over with their dogs.

  9. Be prepared, if you advertise, to have lots of animals come. We usually get the local greyhound rescue club.
    I used to do this service at the animal shelter. This fall, three of us will do that again at a no-kill shelter. If you want to involve your youth, ask if they can go out in the morning and bathe, brush and generally pet the animals. By the time I get there, every kid has some dog or cat that I simply must take home. Given my already well-petted house, I have managed to resist.

  10. Be sure to use the story of the rainbow and the covenant God made with Noah and ALL creation - it is the only story of a covenant that includes the animals.

  11. I usually do the first Saturday in October, which can mean snow here, but not usually. I invite all animals, but say "if your animal can't or doesn't play well with others, please bring a toy we can bless in its stead". I've blessed many leashes, collars, toys, and some tack. We advertise and someone comes from the animal shelter and we pray for all those animals. Don't underestimate the power of a take-away. I've done a little St. Francis prayer or card before. Last year I made up a "Certificate of Blessing" and we wrote in the animal's name. I made extras and people took all of them, asking me to pray for the pets of family members and neighbors. We usually have a SHORT service- reading a psalm with animals (#?) and singing "All God's Critters" or "For the Beauty of the Earth". Cats in crates inside, dogs on leashes on the lawn outside for the actual blessing. So far, we've never had more than 30 present, so I lay hands on each animal and pray for them and their family. If the time comes, I'll adjust that.

  12. We have ours every fall, the first Sunday in October, outside (this is So Cal!) on a patio; we make this the focus of 2 of our 3 regular Sunday morning services. Dogs come on leashes and most other pets come in cages or carriers, cats included, though many get taken out for the actual blessing. I've had cats, dogs, rodents and reptiles of many types, birds, fish, a hedgehog, and a few other assorted animals. People and pets seem to govern themselves well and it's rare to here any kind of altercation going on. We also invite folks to bring photos of pets who are better off staying at home, and for young children to bring stuffed animals. I'd guess we have about 80 or so animals between the two services. It is crazy but fun as long as I release all desire for a predictable, orderly service!

    One of the services includes communion and our youth choir; the other is akin to Morning Prayer. Both work fine, and we use readings, prayers, and hymns that focus on creation. The tradition goes back beyond my 12 years here.

    We publicize it through our school, in freebie ads in local papers, and on the local community blog. We don't get many visitors, but usually a few show up.

    Last year we hung a couple of pretty braided ropes from tree branches with paper clips sort of stuck through the braids. We then invited people to take squares of card stock that we had available, write the name of pets that had died, and clip them onto the braid. It was a lovely and meaningful way to honor their memory.

    In terms of the blessing itself, the clergy (usually 2 or 3 of us) split up and go around to each pet/family. My prayers bless the relationship of love, giving thanks for it being a reflection of God's love for us, and ask for the wisdom and grace for the individual or family to care for the animal as God cares for us. if a family has multiple pets, I include them all by name in one prayer in the interests of time.

  13. Can someone provide a copy of or link to a place to find a Certificate of Blessing to give each pet owner at the ceremony? Can't find one. Thanks.


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