Mass at St. Patrick-St.Anthony Church in Hartford, Conn., was a colorful sea of snuggly stuffed animals, as more than 75 children toted their favorite toys to be blessed on Oct. 9.
This scene of friends — furry and otherwise — was one of dozens throughout the Province, as parishes celebrated St. Francis’ feast day on Oct. 4, in many places a week full of activities that included animal blessings, Transitus services, commemorations, festivals and special Masses.
Thomas Gallagher, OFM, pastor of the downtown Hartford parish, instituted the stuffed animal version of the blessing of animals several years ago to give all children an opportunity to have their favorite pals blessed, not just those with pets. The day before, the church held the traditional blessing of the animals for live pets, and celebrated the Transitus, remembering the death of St. Francis, earlier in the week.
“Embracing Otherness” and “Engaging Francis” were the themes of some events that, in addition to honoring St. Francis’ care of all creation, encouraged people to join social ministry projects and celebrate the colors, cultures and creeds of others, just as the patron saint would.
This year’s 25th anniversary of the Spirit of Assisi makes the 2011 commemorations all the more significant. At the Oct. 27, 1986, gathering in Assisi, Italy, Pope John Paul II reminded all to not lose sight of what St. Francis represented.
Cyberspace, including Facebook, Twitter and blogs, was abuzz with St. Francis mentions last week, as friars throughout the Province blogged about their patron saint and parishes posted photos of their events.
St. Anthony Shrine in Boston posted a YouTube video of its pet blessing and posted on its Facebook page photos of its annual ministry fair. The Camden, N.J., community of St. Anthony of Padua posted many photos of its Francis Weekend events on its Facebook page in an album called October 2011.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New York, N.Y., held a lecture during Francis Week on the topic of spirituality in the digital age. “Finding Francis on Facebook: Franciscan Spirituality and Mission in the Digital Age,” was given byDaniel Horan, OFM, of Holy Name College, Silver Spring, Md.
Daniel, who maintains Dating God, addressed what it means to talk about living according to the Gospel in a technologically-driven world, how Franciscans can find community and communion online, and the relationship popular social media has with Franciscan spirituality and Christian faith.
Patron Saint of Ecology
In Silver Spring, Md., Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, of St. Camillus Parish, used the opportunity to reflect on St. Francis as the patron saint of ecology. He wrote in the newsletter of the Franciscan Action Network: “Have you ever wondered why many churches offer a special blessing for animals around the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology?”
“People bring their pets for a blessing because they want to thank God for their non-human companions, for their friendship and beauty. But there is an even more important reason to bless animals, especially at this time of the unprecedented ecological crisis that we face. First, the blessing of animals reminds us that all creatures have been created and blessed by God. Their worth extends far beyond a mere commodity value that we humans ascribe to them. Second, the blessing of the animals offers us an opportunity to strengthen within us a sense of compassion for all God’s creatures. It can also reawaken in us our religious responsibility to protect them — much like Noah did — from a disaster.”
While the blessing of the animals is a tradition at most parishes around the Province, several other ministries used the opportunity to invite people to community service.
St. Francis of Assisi Church in Raleigh, N.C., asked its community to engage with St. Francis. Its “Engage Francis” theme to its annual Francis Fest gave parishioners an opportunity to join in community service by feeding the hungry with Stop Hunger Now, build a house with Habitat for Humanity, or simply enjoy food and fellowship at the church fair.
St. Francis of Assisi Church in Midtown Manhattan installed its new pastor, Andrew Reitz, OFM, at the feast day Mass, concelebrated by the parish friars. It also added Masses in honor of the feast, and held novenas several days before. Photos of some of the several dozen pets who were blessed on Oct. 1 were published in the Oct. 9 parish bulletin.
The parish also ran its special program “What Makes a Friar Tick” during Francis Week. The popular question and answer session is “always good exposure for the friar life,” according to Andrew. He said roughly 50 people attended the panel discussion that followed 6:15 p.m. Mass. Andrew, along with Michael Carnevale, OFM, Christopher Coccia, OFM, David Convertino, OFM, Brian Smail, OFM, and Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, each gave a short presentation of his life as a friar.
The six friars then entertained questions, including: “Do you get to choose a particular friary?” “What is your day like?” “What do you do together?” “How do you get along with one another?” “How are you doing with vocations?” Andrew noted: “It was light and people commented that they could see we liked each other and had a respect for each other.”
The parish also held its “Viva Francesco: Francis Goes to the Tony’s,” on Sept. 30, at 7 p.m. in San Damiano Hall next to the church.
The cabaret night fundraiser, complete with candlelight, table seating, wine, and pasta, raised money for the music ministry. This year, an evening of Broadway music was performed, under the direction of Meredith Augustin, the parish music director.
The friars of Sullivan County in Upstate New York celebrated the Transitus on Oct. 3 with the local Secular Franciscans and those of Hawley, Pa. Thomas Jones, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony Church in Yulan, preached at Holy Cross Church, Callicoon, N.Y., which was packed with people grateful for the Franciscan ministry in the county for more than 125 years, according to pastor Ignatius Smith, OFM. A festive dinner was served before the 7 p.m. service. “The feast day was celebrated with great solemnity in all four Franciscan parishes.”
In northern Virginia, St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle held its annual Francis Festival on the grounds in the newly expanded parking lot. Coordinated by long-time parishioner Maureen Deutermann, the parish didn’t let bad weather spoil the good time. Kids enjoyed outdoor bouncy inflatables, while their parents and other church members won bottles of wine, cakes and other goodies through organized games.
Schoolchildren attended Mass outside in nearby Locust Shade Park the Friday before the feast day, staying in the park to learn about St. Francis’ love of creation until lunch time. Roughly 250 children attended Mass in the park with pastor Kevin Downey, OFM, Charles Miller, OFM, and John Heffernan, OFM.
Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, N.C., where Daniel McLellan, OFM, is pastor, celebrated the memory of St. Francis with a blessing of animals in the neighborhood community garden, created to provide resources for the city’s Interfaith Food Shuttle. Students from the parish school attended a feast day Mass on Oct. 4 and dramatized the “Wolf of Gubbio” during school-wide morning prayer on Oct. 7. A communal anointing of the sick and luncheon on Oct. 5 recalled Francis’s attentiveness to the sick. “On Oct. 6 parishioners were invited to an evening dedicated to deepening our appreciation of the Eucharist, and on Oct. 15 we are gathering for a multicultural festival and bilingual Mass. We close this year’s celebration on Oct. 23 with a parish ‘Spirit of Assisi’ observance,” Dan said.
Colleges in the Province also paused to celebrate the life and ministry of St. Francis. Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., held an annual blessing of the animals in front of the Standish Library, welcoming students, families and people from the community to bring their pets.
At Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, president Kevin Mackin, OFM, offered a blessing for pets of all kinds on campus and in the area. John McDowell, OFM, director of the St. Andrew Campus Ministry and Catholic Student Association at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., reports that the community there also held a blessing of the animals.
St. Bonaventure University in Western New York celebrated its Franciscan heritage around the theme “Embracing Otherness.” Special guest Br. Michael “Mickey” McGrath, OSFS, gave the Fr. Jerome Kelly Memorial Lecture on “Encounters with Otherness: Saved By Beauty.” Br. McGrath, who explores the connections between life, art and faith, also spoke at Mt. Irenaeus in West Clarksville, N.Y., discussing “Encounters with Otherness: Color, Culture, Creed.”
In Georgia, Thomas Vigliotta, OFM, director of the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia: “October is a very special month for all Franciscans. Oct. 4 is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order and movement. It is not unusual on this day to bless animals, fill the bird feeder, clean the statue in the garden or maybe pray for peace reciting the beautiful prayer attributed to him. This October is indeed a little more special than usual for besides the traditional feast day celebration the entire Church has been asked by Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate in a very special way the 25th anniversary of the first gathering of the Spirit of Assisi.” Thomas and the other HNP friars in the area submitted a photo of themselves to the local Catholic newspaper to draw attention to the significance of October to the Franciscans.
Whether it was through pet blessings and festivals or lectures and services, the Provincial ministries offered a variety of commemorations that were enjoyable, if not enriching, to all.
— Wendy Healy, a freelance writer based in Connecticut, is the author of the recently published book, Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal after 9/11. Jocelyn Thomas contributed research to this article.