It was October 1979, my second year in seminary when I had the great opportunity to spend the feast of St. Francis in Assisi. I had never been there and I fell in love with the place immediately. Not only is this the loveliest of Umbrian hill top towns, more importantly it is truly the town of St. Francis. His presence can be felt everywhere as his spirit permeates the skinny cobbles stoned streets, the grand and small churches alike, the hills he walked with his early brothers and the forests where he communed with “brother sun and sister moon.” I remember closing my eyes and almost seeing him walking the streets of Assisi.
On the morning of October 4, after having celebrated the liturgy of the hours at the Basilica of Saint Francis near the resting place of the saint’s mortal remains we made our way to San Damiano. It was in the church of this small but lovely monastery that in 1205 Francis had a vision. He saw Jesus on the cross come alive and he heard him say: "Francis, don't you see my house is crumbling? Go, and restore it!" Thus he and his brothers took it upon themselves to restore not only the church of San Damiano itself but many other dilapidated churches in the region. This physical work, however, was but a symbol for Francis’ real mission: assuring that the Church was true to its mission. He praised people whenever he saw fit, and he did not shy away from chastising anyone, lay people, priests or bishops alike when they claimed to be Christian but embraced values that were incompatible with the Gospel.
San Damiano is also the place where St. Clare founded her monastic community. The spiritual bond between Clare and Francis was very strong and lasted throughout their lives. Both wanted the same: a church true to the Gospel. At first Francis was the leader of the community of sisters, until Clare assumed the role of abbess. Once named abbess, Clare wrote a rule for her community rooted in the Franciscan spirituality. This is the oldest known rule written by a woman. Strong in faith she managed to resist the pressures by some prelates who tried to impose the Rule of St. Benedict on her and she scared off many an invader by simply facing up to them monstrance in hand.
It was at this holy place, on this holy day that we hoped to participate in the Eucharist. To our great surprise Eucharist was to be celebrated in the courtyard of the monastery. As we sat around waiting for everything to begin neighboring farmers arrived, carrying baskets full of vegetables and fruits. They also brought in a veritable menagerie of farm animals. The courtyard quickly turned into what looked more like a bustling market square than the proper place to celebrate the Eucharist. Nevertheless, that is where we celebrated the Eucharist. By the end of Mass I was profoundly moved by this highly spiritual experience. The liturgy brought home the fact that all of creation is sacred and that we are to honor, respect and protect all of creation as it is of God.
Today we celebrate the Blessing of the Animals at The Basilica of Saint Mary on the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Francis. To some this is the silliest thing imaginable, even bordering on disrespectful. To others it is as spiritual as the experience I had some 35 years ago in Assisi. Regardless of people’s thoughts about this event or their reason for participating or not, the fact is that with this celebration we do what Francis and the Franciscans have done for centuries: we honor all of creation as sacred because it is of God. And we remind ourselves of our responsibility to care for creation and to protect it as that is what God has tasked us to do.
I fondly remember one of my teachers in Louvain pointing out that children occasion their parents to return to church. Having been involved in parish work for over 20 years I know this to be true. I have also come to realize that sometimes it is the animals that bring their humans to church. And in the great realization of the sacredness of all creation this, perhaps this is not all that strange.