Blessing of the Animals Service at National Catholic Shrine Welcomes All God’s Creatures

Though I was raised Catholic, lapsed in my middle decades, then returned to the fold, there was one religious service that I had never experienced: the Blessing of the Animals. One Sunday in July of 2011, I decided to stick around after Mass and check it out. There was an hour wait between the end of Mass and the Blessing, so I sat with a book in the outdoor plaza of The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother in Portland, also known as The Grotto.

Happy Place Number 23: The Grotto, Oregon. Even if you’re not religious, it’s a wonderful spiritual place to visit.

A photo posted by ↟Travel, Laugh, Eat.↟ (@happyhappyplaces) on

Two young people from the maintenance staff appeared to prepare for the service. “So how many animals are you expecting?” I asked. “You just never know,” answered a young woman in overalls. It was clear that both workers found my question amusing. The question would soon be answered. People begin to arrive with their pets, and soon there were as many animals as humans on the plaza. Dogs of every breed and mix, from the youngest pups to elders blessed in dog years. Cats — crated, carried, cuddled, and even on leashes. A Disney-esque Siamese here, a tailless Manx there. Other animals came in portable habitats, some draped, some showing hamsters, white mice, and other bureau-top pets. A few folks brought birds in wire cages. One woman stood out for having a smiling possum on her shoulder. There was an entrance song, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” after which Father Jack Topper, then executive director, now Rector of the Grotto, begin the service. He offered a prayer, which included the passage:

We give you thanks for the gift of all animals, but today we thank you especially for the animals who share their lives with us, who play with us, who make our lives happy and who love us faithfully.

After the service, Father Jack, known for his humor, said, “I wonder if the pets are thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” The blessings began, with each animal and each owner getting a moment before the priest for a sprinkling of holy water and a blessing. A line to rival Holy Communion had assembled. The pets were surprisingly well behaved. Cats peered over owners’ shoulders with meows and expressions of vague interest. Golden Retrievers and Labradors heeled with characteristic aplomb, all but licking Father Jack’s hand during the blessing. There was a skittish poodle, and a resigned English bulldog who seemed to have seen it all. Some attendees brought cards to the altar, for pets passed or unable to participate. When a noisy parrot got its sprig-full of holy water, it comically fluffed its wings. The possum smiled its nocturnal smile throughout the service.

There were a couple of miscues. One tan tabby briefly escaped the lap of its owner and slinked in behind the benches. Another woman deftly grabbed the cat’s collar. Good thing; a cat lost in the wooded and craggy sanctuary might require a miracle. When two dogs got snarly with each other in line, a place change restored order.

The service was nearly over when two women, apparently mother and daughter, ascended the stone steps which led to a consecrated granite alcove. Mom looked conventional enough, but the daughter had tattoos on her arms, and piercings on her face. Around her neck was a fat python, green-gold and too comfortable around those feminine shoulders.

I was struck by the conceptual juxtaposition. The snake, serpent of Christian theology, symbol of all things fallen. It required a quick a leap of faith, as it were, to reconcile the mythos surrounding the snake and a holy blessing. The girl brought her pet forward and Father Jack conferred the blessing.

Once home, I Google-searched “Bible” and “snake,” seeking answers about how it came that a snake and a blessing struck me as incongruous.

In Revelations, the serpent I’d learned to fear appeared: And the great dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan….

In James, prospects for the snake were better:

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed, and has been tamed by mankind.

As Genesis makes clear, God did not forget snakes when instructing Noah about the coming flood:

Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive.

I’d been baptized, confirmed, made confession, received communion, attended Catholic schools, and participated in numerous Catholic weddings and funerals, rituals and observances which centered on God’s human creations. At my first Blessing of the Animals, I was reminded that the symbolism surrounding our slithery friends is an invention of the human race. The creature itself, as it lives and breathes, belongs to God.

I became a regular, each July, for the annual Blessing of the Animals, even though my dog had died in 2010.