Over 640,000 Brooklynites attended a Catholic or Episcopalian church in 2010. Most left their dogs at home.
The Catholic Church has long held that animal souls are distinct from human souls and, therefore, all dogs do not go to heaven. But every year in the first week of October, Brooklyn churches open their doors to canines. October 4 is the feast day of St. Francis and many congregations now celebrate the occasion by blessing pets.
“There was even one woman who had a python,” said Reverend Peter Cullen of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Carroll Gardens. “We’ve been doing this 25 years, you see all kinds of animals.” This Columbus Day weekend there were no snakes in evidence, though about 60 people gathered in the rain with their dogs, cats, goldfish and even stuffed animals for blessing by proxy.
Pet blessings first gained popularity as Anglican events in the early 1900s. Catholic blessings, on the other hand, were historically associated with farming and events where the animals were actually killed, explained Professor Paul Halsall, head of Fordham University’s Internet History Sourcebooks Project. As St. Francis became increasingly popular in the 20th century, the blessing of pets spread throughout the country.
“St. Francis is probably the most attractive saint in Christian history, both to Catholics and non-Catholics,” he said. “Pope John Paul II called him the patron saint of ecology. St. Francis saw a wholeness about the world.” As American Catholics move towards an increasing ecological awareness, many are embracing the saint who was known for preaching to the birds and communing with animals.
So do all dogs go to heaven?
The clergy at Sunday’s blessing laughed off the question but Catholic doctrine still says no. Even if they’re blessed, animals are denied access. But Halsall politely dissented, saying “I think the church may not be right on this one. I’d be very unhappy if I made it to heaven and my dog wasn’t there.”