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GOD’S CREATURES Many parishes around the Diocese hold an annual Blessing of the Animals on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4. LEFT: A young boy looks at his pet turtle at the Blessing of the Animals at St. John XXIII in Fontana. CENTER: Parishioners and their pets pose for a photo alongside Father Clarence Saldua, M.S., Administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes, Montclair. RIGHT: St. John XXIII parishioner Enrique Lopez has brought his African grey parrot to be blessed every year for over 10 years.

By Miramon Nuevo

The air was thick with excitement as the crowd of more than a hundred adults, children and pets waited restlessly for Father Suresh Manickam, H.G.N., to come out from the rectory.

It was the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi and, as in the past years, St. John XXIII Catholic Church in Fontana was blessing animals anew. St. John XXIII is just one of many parishes around the Diocese that blesses parishioners’ pets each October.

“The blessing of animals dates back 800 years to the life of St. Francis,” explained Fr. Manickam, parochial vicar at St. John XXIII. “St. Francis considered animals to be his brothers and sisters, and he hoped that God would use him to bring about their wellbeing.

“Birds would occasionally congregate around St. Francis while he spoke, and listened to him. St. Francis proceeded to preach to them, telling them of the many ways in which God had blessed them,” he said.

Whether furry, feathered, scaly or gilled, these beloved pets certainly were a sight to behold. There were dogs, cats, birds, a duck, a piglet, guinea pigs, rabbits, a tortoise, a turtle, iguanas, fish and nine different kinds of tarantulas.

“Last year, we were told that somebody brought a snake,” recalled Mayra Tranquilino, the parish secretary. “Even the serpents deserve a blessing.”

Parishioner Enrique Lopez gamely showed his African grey parrot Alex to a handful of eager kids at Resurrection Academy, the church’s parochial school and site of the ceremony. This species is known for their ability to talk and mimic human speech.

Lopez makes sure to bring Alex to the blessing of the animals each year. “We have had him for 12 years now; we got him when he was 5 and he is about 15-20 years old now. He’s not missed a blessing since,” he said.

“Oh, and he also prays the rosary!”

For sisters Rebecca and Gladys Gomez, having their Australian Husky Shephard named Rocky blessed by a priest is their way of thanking one loyal and tested friend who stood with them through tough times.

“We lost both of our parents during the pandemic,” said Rebecca Gomez. “When the news of their death spread to our families and friends, no one came or offered to help for fear that both of us might be carrying the virus. We got kicked out of our apartment and slept in our car for months and guess who was with us the whole time? Only Rocky.”

“Rocky stayed with us through thick and thin. We may have lost our home but we never lost our faith. He helped me through my depression,” she added.

Some in the crowd acknowledged that this Catholic tradition started by the founder of the Franciscan Order is entirely new to them. A few had misconceptions about the nature of the event, with some thinking that it would bring them good luck and others believing that it would protect their animals from demonic possession, a sort of “animal baptism.”

Father Clarence Saldua, Administrator at Our Lady of Lourdes, Montclair, warns Catholics to not confuse the blessing of pets for “animal baptism.”

“Animals do not sin. They are incapable of sin,” he clarified. “They are incapable of doing moral good or any virtuous acts. When an animal dies it is dead and there is no spirit that lives on in Heaven. Thus, we don’t baptize animals.”

“Blessing animals is meant to remind us of our serious obligation to respect and watch over them with care, in light of that greater and higher fraternity that exists within the human family,” Fr. Saldua told his congregation during the rite.

“Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with His providential care. By their mere existence they bless Him and give Him glory. Thus, men owe them kindness. God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom He created in His own image,” he ended.

Miramon Nuevo is a freelance writer and a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes, Montclair. A retired sports columnist and boxing analyst, he now lives with his wife, Justine, and three children in Fontana.