the loving gaze of Christ, Lord of Creation, a camel and bull
(and other animals nearby) await the opening of the door and
their entrance into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
JACK WINTZ, O.F.M.
It has to be one of the most spectacular animal blessings and celebrations of St. Francis
of Assisi on the planet. The setting is the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine
in upper Manhattan, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.
For the last 18 years, on the first Sunday of October, this immense cathedral, over 600
feet in length, is transformed into the lost Garden of Paradise. There, for several glorious
hours, over 3,500 men, women and children—with dogs, cats, gerbils, turtles and other pets
at their sides—worship and praise their loving Creator in the spirit of St. Francis.
On the 5th of this month, they will be doing it again. Another huge, joy-filled and animal-rich
assembly will observe the 19th annual St. Francis Day celebration. The Right Rev. Mark
S. Sisk will preside over the ceremonies, his third time after being installed at the cathedral
as the Episcopal bishop of New York, September 29, 2001. Immediately after a festive, two-hour
celebration of the Eucharist, the great bronze doors of the cathedral will swing open.
A procession of larger and more exotic animals, with their caretakers, will move rather
silently down the center aisle.
Last year, a man with a huge eagle perched on his gloved hand led the way. The eagle was
followed by a large camel, two llamas, a ram, a full-grown bull, a man carrying a boa constrictor
and a woman holding a big blue-gold macaw, to mention a few.
On and on they came, until all were gathered before the main altar—where the bishop prayed: "We
give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea,...for the
songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers, and for the wonder of your animal kingdom.
We praise you for these good gifts and pray that we may safeguard them for posterity....Amen."
A few weeks ago, Bishop Sisk told St. Anthony Messenger that he was "looking forward
to this year's celebration with great anticipation.
"I am a Franciscan so it has deep spiritual connections for me. St. Francis Day celebrates
God's gift of creation in a special way. Every Eucharist celebrates creation. But on St.
Francis Day we pull out all stops and make the joy of that celebration clear and dramatic
for the entire world to see.
"I have been a Third Order Franciscan for 32 years," Bishop Sisk explains, "so this service
means a very great deal to me." Though the bishop is a Third Order Franciscan in the Episcopal
tradition, he points out that three of his close relatives have been "Third Order Regular
Franciscans within the Roman Catholic community."
of Wolf, Whale and Loon
in the smile of its caretaker, this llama is one of two llamas
that have joined other exotic animals in front of the cathedral
for the procession of animals about to begin.
One year ago, October 6, 2002, St. Anthony Messenger had the good fortune to be
part of the vast, jubilant assembly of people and their pets gathered at St. John the Divine
for the Feast of St. Francis. The spirit of St. Francis was evident from the word go.
The opening procession and Eucharist. No sooner does the Eucharist's opening procession
begin than the Paul Winter Consort and the St. Francis Day Festival Choir break into an
exuberant adaptation of St. Francis' "Canticle of the Sun," praising God through "Brother
Sun," "Sister Moon and stars," as well as through "Brother Wolf," "Sister Whale," "Sister
Loon" and many other creatures.
And as ministers, cross-bearers, banner-wavers and dancers—amidst clouds of incense and
pulsating rhythms—process joyfully down the long center aisle, we hear over the P.A. system
the primordial cries of whale, wolf and loon.
All during the exultant music, praise and motion, however, the animals in the pews are
curiously quiet, except for an occasional howl or whimper, which blends harmoniously with
the voices of wolves and whales and other sounds from the deep. The whole standing-room-only
crowd of women and men—as well as animals of land, sea and air—seem to be worshiping God
together in one symphony of praise. They have become one family of creation, which,
according to the faith vision of Francis of Assisi, is precisely what they are created
The words of the opening collect of the day, prayed by the bishop after the procession,
echo the joy of the moment: "Most high, almighty and good Lord, grant...that after the
example of blessed Francis we may, for love of you, delight in all your creatures...through
Jesus Christ our Lord...."
In the sermon, delivered by the Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski, the dean of the cathedral,
everyone is urged to thank God "for the special insights that Francis has entrusted to
us" and "to renew our commitment to being good stewards of the gift of creation."
Throughout the Eucharist, the prayers and hymns continue to remind us of Francis' love
for creation. And during the singing of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, for example, human voices
continue to intermingle with those of other creatures.
At the end of the Eucharist, the prayer chosen as the post-communion prayer is the Peace
Prayer of St. Francis, which the bishop invites all to recite.
The blessing of animals before the altar. Immediately following the Peace Prayer
are the opening of the bronze doors and the silent procession of large animals. The eagle,
the camel, the boa constrictor and other animals come to the main altar to receive the
"Live without fear," Bishop Sisk announces. "Your Creator loves you, made you holy and
has always protected you. Go in peace to follow the good road and may God's blessing be
with you always. Amen."
The words of the blessing, according to the printed program, are "attributed to St. Clare."
Blessing of pets on the cathedral lawn. After the ceremonies inside the cathedral
are completed, the celebration moves outside onto the spacious and tree-adorned lawn alongside
A festive fair with various exhibits and performances takes place there, with people lining
up before the clergy at various venues on the lawn to have their pets blessed individually.
And so the day's ceremonies come to an end appropriately amidst the trees and sun-splashed
greenery—with happy clusters of humans enjoying the wonders of nature along with their
blessed animals. For these shining moments—and hours—we have returned to the Garden of
Eden as one family of creation.
Do Episcopalians Have a Special Love for
Very Rev. James Kowalski was among the clergy blessing
animals on the lawn of the cathedral. Here he blesses a cat and its emotionally moved caretaker.
As her husband blesses the cat (see photo above), the Rev. Dr. Anne Brewer, assistant minister at St. John the Divine, blesses a dog on the lawn nearby.
The Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski, the dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral, graciously
offered the following response to the above question:
"Anglicans have developed a creation theology....Anglican divines wrote poetry in which
even pebbles of sand on the beach sing out the praises of the Lord. Francis seems to offer
us particular hope [in so far as he] identified with the weak, the suffering and all creatures—great
"It would be sad to sentimentalize Francis, instead of seeing that one major healing is
needed on this planet, our fragile island home. What needs healing most urgently is our
relationship to creation.
"In some ways, Episcopalians have struggled more with and contributed more to incarnational
and creation theologies than many other denominations. And they have tried to see the social
and political implications of these theologies—not just the personal and interpersonal
"Many people comment about how quiet the cathedral is during a long service like this,
with 3,500 people and hundreds of cats, dogs, birds and other animals....The harmony and
peacefulness in the cathedral touch people deeply—a kind of foretaste of the lion and the
lamb lying down together....I think St. Francis Day at St. John the Divine is another glimpse
of how life is meant to be, with all of God’s creation not just surviving, but also living
interdependently and harmoniously together."