In contravention of some conservative Catholic theologies, Pope Francis declared in a public appearance in 2014 that animals may indeed have an afterlife. “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ,” said Pope Francis, according to USA Today. “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”
Reverend Joseph D. Fenton, commonly referred to as “Father Joe” or the Catholic chaplain at the McAlister Center for Religious Activities of the Claremont Colleges, would probably agree with Pope Francis, having organized an Annual Blessing of the Animals for 7C-affiliated students, faculty, and staff for the past three to four years.
Over a dozen families showed up with their pet animals for the Annual Blessing in front of McAlister Center on Sunday, Oct. 8. The Annual Blessing, said Fenton, is meant to “celebrate our pets” and restore the Christian church tradition of blessing the animals, as did Saint Francis of Assisi who, based on Christian custom, showed his devotion to God through his love for all creatures and animals.
Fenton and Protestant chaplain of McAlister Center, Dr. Jeff Liou, read sections from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1, verses 20-28 as well as Psalm 8 at the ceremony, giving thanks to animals, such as birds and fish. Shortly afterwards, Fenton and Liou blessed each animal with holy water from an aspergillum. “May God keep him safe and out of trouble!” said Father Joe to one of the dogs as he blessed him.
According to Fenton, the annual ceremony of blessing the animals has existed for around half a century. “It’s been a custom in Christian churches, mostly, the last 50 years, since the second world war, to revive that custom that St. Francis had of blessing the animals and thanking God for our animals,” said Father Joe. “You’ll see the pictures of St. Francis, way back in the twelfth [or] thirteenth century, blessing animals.”
Although the Annual Blessing is religious in practice, Fenton welcomes all non-religious people and animals, since the ceremony is ultimately to express gratitude for animals, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.
“Whether you’re Christian or whether you believe in God or anything like that – a lot of people like to [bless their animals] because they get a chance to show off their pets and feel good about their pets and also, in their own way, thank whoever for their pet, you know?” Fenton said.
Many families met with enthusiasm to engage with other pets at the ceremony. In fact, many of the participants regularly attend Mass at the McAlister Center.
“I’ve always gotten my animals blessed on St. Francis day ever since my mom’s been working for Scripps College,” said Jeff Chavez, one of the Annual Blessing participants. “It’s a good way to get them blessed by God … It helps purify them and keeps them blessed the same way when people get blessed.”
Many families keep returning to their Annual Blessing, said Fenton because the ceremony not only “teaches their children to respect their pets,” but that for “older people,” their pets “mean a lot” to them and that the ceremony becomes a way of “thanking God” and being “mindful” about taking care of pets.
With a roughly five or six-year-old male Australian Silky Terrier rescue dog at home, Fenton believes in the importance of keeping a pet in one’s life. “The pets are definitely special to us,” he said. “They give us unconditional love, and they don’t ever question us about our decisions or our problems or anything else, you know? … They just want to be with you and let you know that they love you.”
Father Joe hopes that the Annual Blessing will serve as an opportunity for people to show consideration for their pets and “take a moment” to be thankful.
“I hope that whoever comes and participates … has a chance … to know that God cares about your pet,” said Fenton. “Sometimes, we live in a blasé world, and this is a chance to celebrate our pets and respect them as God’s gifts to us, ‘cause that’s what they are – I think, anyway.”