A number of summers ago I read an article in a travel magazine that described an incredible event. The article claimed that a major cathedral in New York City invited thousands of animals into its holy space. To me this just seemed too unbelievable. Not only were regular animals like dogs and cats included but all kinds of exotic species. This was the definition of ‘incongruous’. I mean how often have you come across an animal in a church let alone a cathedral?
So I phoned the cathedral in question, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and inquired that if what I had read was true. Of course it was. I asked if an elephant had actually been allowed into the cathedral. Certainly, and not only an elephant, but also many other exotic creatures. I thanked the lady for the information and expressed my disappointment in having missed this event. She then informed me that this Blessing of the Animals on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi was an annual celebration that takes place in October. I was in luck!
That October I flew to New York to witness the Blessing of the Animals first hand. On Sunday I took a cab to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on northeast side of Manhattan. I was amazed at the line of people and pets that stretched around the block. They had started lining up at 6 am. I was fortunate to get a seat as the Cathedral was packed with several thousand folks and over a thousand animals.
Dogs were everywhere, all sorts of breeds and mutts. Cats were on leashes and in carrying crates. Parrots sat on heads and shoulders. Rabbits, hamsters, buggies, cockatiels, ferrets, and turtles were in abundance. It was truly overwhelming.
The atmosphere was thick with magic, spirit, and wonderfully strong, positive feelings. The animals got along with one another and seemed to sense that something special was taking place. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine itself is impressive in its enormity and splendor. Apparently, the Statue of Liberty could fit into this Cathedral!
And the music was astounding. I was pleasantly surprised to see the famous jazz saxophonist Paul Winter leading his group the Paul Winter Consort. With them was a choir of close to four hundred voices and a beautiful female soloist. They performed the Missa Gaia or Earth Mass, an environmental mass celebrating the Earth and its creatures. Woven throughout this powerful, exotic music were the sounds and voices of animals including wolves, whales, eagles and loons.
I will always remember the moment when the great bronze doors of the Cathedral slowly opened to reveal the silhouette of a massive elephant. The elephant strode in leading the Procession of Animals. A hush fell over the thousands in attendance as the procession moved slowly along the two-football fields long aisle to the altar. The Procession included llamas, horses, cows, dogs, tortoises, pot-bellied pigs, raptors, snakes and many others. Surrounding the altar, these beautiful creatures were blessed by several bishops and priests.
After the official ceremony, a wonderful festival was held on the park like grounds of the Cathedral. Here the Bishop of New York and several monks and priests give individual animal blessings to hundreds of the pets brought by the public. Most wanted health and happiness for their beloved companions. Some brought sick, injured and old animals for a special blessing. And some had pictures of missing pets to be blessed in hope of finding them.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine created the Blessing of the Animals for the Feast of St. Francis to draw attention to the environmental problems occurring on Earth. St. Francis is after all the patron saint of ecology and of animals. This is truly a wondrous, emotional and spectacular celebration that inspires one to better respect and love our planet and the beautiful creatures that inhabit it.
This was one of the most memorable days in my life and I am certain that if you love animals, great music and pageantry you too will find it extraordinary.