Last year on Oct. 4, in the pocket park by the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in downtown Juneau, my family and I gathered in the rain with seven dogs, four cats and a ferret (with their respective humans) for the traditional Blessing of the Beasts. This blessing commemorates the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi and his understanding of the connectedness of all creation — including “Brother Wolf” and “Sister Sparrow.” St. Francis, who has always been a favorite, recently became even more popular when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose to take his name when he was elected pope this past March. At his first meeting with the world media, Pope Francis fittingly proffered a blessing to a guide dog who was accompanying a visually-impaired journalist, affirmatively answering my 8-year-old daughter’s most pressing question about the new pontiff, “Does he like animals?”
In the early 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi earned a reputation for being a medieval beast whisperer when he took it upon himself to act as mediator between a wolf and the community the wolf was harassing. Bringing the wolf into the town square, Francis chastised him and then brokered a deal wherein the wolf agreed to not kill any more farm animals or hurt people if the townsfolk promised to feed him.
Thirteen years ago, as a college student living abroad in Florence, I traveled to the town of Assisi on a weekend trip. The peacefulness of the town impressed me, with its brown-robed friars walking the streets in twos and threes, rope rosaries swaying. While waiting to buy lunch at a deli in the town square, I watched a dog approach the store entrance. The owner, leaving the human customers at the counter, greeted the dog gleefully, offering him several meat scraps he had apparently been saving just for this moment.
My family adopted a dog of our own, Ariel, from the Gastineau Humane Society two years ago. We’d been visiting the shelter every Saturday for months to play with the dogs that were up for adoption. There were several our kids would have gladly taken home. One in particular, a five-pound, 12-year-old poodle named Harold, charmed them. Harold loved to play tug of war, but he also had bladder control issues and was much smaller than the “big dog” my husband had been talking about for years. As a boy, Jeff had a Rhodesian Ridgeback that he could ride like a horse. Harold didn’t quite measure up.
Though Jeff and the kids were the instigators behind our dog search, I was the one who found Ariel on the GHS website and immediately drove out to take her on a walk in the pouring rain with my nearly 3-year-old son in a backpack. I just had a feeling that she was the one — our dog.
And she was. She is. She might still poop on the floor on occasion (she never has developed a signal to tell us she has to go), and it took a citronella collar to cure her incessant barking (who knew dogs abhor the scent of fresh lemons?), but she also keeps my feet warm when Jeff’s away on work trips, and when one of the kids is sad she’ll let them sob into her fur. She’s also the only reason I’ve had the opportunity to number the stars on the rare clear Juneau night when I take her out one last time before bed.
Blessing has many meanings, but the one I like the most is to “invoke divine aide or protection.” To bless our animals is to recognize they are precious in the eyes of God, just as St. Francis did, from the field mouse to the grizzly bear, from the ferret to the anaconda. If you have a furry, feathered or scaly friend who brings you joy, you are both invited to meet us at Cathedral Park on the corner of Fifth and Gold Streets at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 4 for the Blessing of the Beasts.
• Katy Beedle rice is the director of religious education at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.