Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the Blessing of the Animals on World Animal Day at the Washington National Cathedral. After the talk, what came next was by far the best part of the event. Walking out into the courtyard, it was great to see so many dogs with wagging tails, cats in carriers, and even a few guinea pigs and gerbils. Those giving and receiving the blessings all seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was a particularly warm October day, and I remember some thick-coated dogs craning their necks to lap up a few extra drops of the holy water. The event was a heartwarming experience, and a testament to the deep bond we share with animals.
The Blessing of the Animals takes place each year in churches across the United States and is tied to the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, widely celebrated as the patron saint of animals. This weekend, hundreds of churches will once again observe this beautiful ritual, welcoming pets and other animals inside their sanctuaries and in their courtyards to receive the blessings of St. Francis, who preached sermons to and about animals and the environment, and praised all creatures as brothers and sisters under God.
The celebration of animals and their lives is a big part of World Animal Day, which dates back at least to the 1920s and may have even deeper roots in 19th century humane advocacy. The unity and connection Francis preached was coupled with a strong desire to see humans do right by animals, and that’s a vital dimension of what many advocates call “creation care” in the present day.
For centuries, religious leaders of every faith have voiced moral concern for the humane treatment of animals. William Wilberforce, a central figure in the Evangelical movement, played a major role in establishing the London-based Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. This ties faith leaders to the first organized animal welfare organization, still active today as the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Over the years, other historical faith leaders have shared this same concern, from John Wesley and C.S. Lewis to Reverend Billy Graham, Dr. Russell Moore, Cardinal Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict), and Pope Francis.
In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis called on us all to be better stewards of all creation, noting that “[e]ach organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself.”
At the Humane Society of the United States, we have long recognized that for so many supporters humane values are deeply aligned with faith. Two of our CEOs were clerical leaders before they joined the HSUS, and a decade ago we further cemented this connection by establishing a Faith Outreach Department, whose staff work to bring together people and institutions of all faiths to advocate for the unity and well-being of all creation.
In 2015, the HSUS collaborated on the launch of “Every Living Thing,” a national campaign to engage the Evangelical community on animal protection issues. “Every Living Thing” is built around a statement of principles about animal protection from major faith leaders who are carrying on the work of St. Francis in the 21st century, playing a crucial role in spreading the message of compassion for animals as well as people.
The inspiration of St. Francis also motivates our efforts to put faith into action for animals through our Faith Advisory Council, which includes leading scholars and representatives from a range of religious denominations, faiths and backgrounds. Each member acts as an ambassador for the HSUS, and plays a leading role in reminding people to be responsible stewards and caretakers of God’s creation.
We are also proud of our Faith Outreach Volunteers, who help bring to light the moral and religious dimensions of our society’s treatment of animals. The volunteers work directly with faith leaders and animal welfare experts to promote animal protection values in communities of faith.
As the HSUS continues to make strides on behalf of animals, we are proud to count people of faith across all religions as allies in the protection of “all creatures great and small.” Our staff members and volunteers will once again be at the National Cathedral and other churches this weekend to take part in the Blessing of the Animals, celebrating animals and the people who love them.