Saturday, October 1, 2016

Blessing Our Pets in Church

Across the country this week-end, many churches will be having services to bless pets. We do this ostensibly to celebrate the life of St. Francis, although there was so much more to St. Francis than his love of animals (more on that on his feast day on Oct. 4). Today, I'd like to think about pets and whether or not we should have a service to bless them.

I once attended a church that incorporated the pet blessing into the regular service, which meant that we all attended church with a variety of animals that day. I confess to being nervous. What if some of those less-friendly animals got loose? What if someone in the church was deathly allergic to the hair of one of those animals? I was deeply distracted that day and relieved to get out of the sanctuary. Worship should not inspire those feelings.

Many churches do a separate service these days. That means that people like me can avoid the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate animals, and if I lived by myself, I might want a pet for companionship--but only if I worked fewer hours and travelled less.

Moving the worship service to a separate time, and perhaps a separate place, still doesn't solve the theological question. Why are we blessing our pets? I'd ask a harder question: why do we welcome pets into our sanctuaries while not welcoming the most destitute members of our society? Let's be honest: what would your church members do if a deranged homeless person walked through the doors or a skinhead or a family who didn't speak the language of members?

Maybe a pet blessing service opens our hearts to those who don't speak our language or look like us? But I'm also troubled by the knowledge of how much money we're spending on our pets. Gone are the days when you'd spend a chunk of money for shots and that would be the extent of your vet bills for the life of the pet. I know people who cook for their pets because they're horrified at what goes into pet food. Yet I don't see that passion for food safety translate into other areas of life.

What does it mean that we spend so much on our pets and so little on the poor? What does it mean that we care more about the health of our pets than our own health or the health of our fellow humans or the health of the planet?

I worry that our pets are shrinking our human contact. I know several people who are happier to spend an evening with a pet than with a friend. What does that say about our society?

A good pastor could address some of these elements in a pet blessing service. A good pastor could remind us that as we care for our pets who are thoroughly dependent on us, we are called to care for the poor amongst us, who are also thoroughly dependent on our generosity.

Yes, a good pastor could make all kinds of connections so that a blessing of the pets service avoids insipidness. Let me rest in the hope that most pastors who incorporate pet blessings will take advantage of this opportunity.

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