Fr. Alex Chetsas
I’ll never forget the look on her face: “Father, what’s this about blessing pets this weekend? Will. ..will they be in the church?” “No, not this time,” I replied with my best deadpan. “I don’t think we have enough pews.” My parishioner and I both smiled, she a bit nervously, and on we moved toward our first “St. Modestos Blessing of the Animals Event” at my little Florida parish.
It turned out to be the start of something wonderful In our community, and I’ve kept the concept close to my heart-and in my ministry “playbook”-ever since. The idea for the event came simply enough. A few years ago a clergy friend of mine gave me an animal blessing prayer from St. Modestas, Archbishop of Jerusalem (feast day Dee. 16). He mentioned that he’d been blessing pets during Epiphany house blessings. This sounded smart: people love their pets, and this would be a low-key, personal way to connect with parishioners while visiting homes. At the same time, 1 was on the lookout for a Christmas outreach event, something a little outside the norm that would invite people to take another look at our parish. I’d been hearing for years about Catholic churches blessing animals. After doing a little research, I learned that this was also a long-standing Orthodox practice, connected to more than a few saints of our Orthodox faith.
The idea developed into a parish-wide concept, and it seemed a great opportunity to
engage in this ancient Christian tradition in a broad, modern setting. The event is held outside the church, so there is no confusion about liturgical boundaries or respect for the church building itself. I started testing the waters with parishioners whom I knew had pets; the response was overall very positive. We picked a December date that was close to St. Modestos’s feast but not too close to Christmas-near enough to ride the positive, cheerful coattails of the season, but not so close as to overwhelm our busy parishioners. Into the bulletin, Web site and local papers the announcement went. We enlisted our JOY group to sponsor the event. The children would enjoy a lunch beforehand, learn about St. Modestos and the respect he had for all that God made, and make sure all of the pets and people were well-satisfied with plenty of tasty treats.
My wife, Brandy, animal-lover and PR machine that she is, got on the phone with everyone from the governor’s office to the city animal shelter, to neighboring churches and synagogues, to every free online and traditional newspaper in fifty miles, spreading the word with a sense of hospitality, friendship and community outreach. I talked to our parishioners not only about St. Modestos but also about the real meaning of Christmas, the coming of the Lord, the Light that shines in the darkness, the Healer of all creation. And I challenged them to recall the simplicity of that unforgettable night so long ago-the brilliant-star beaming, over the cave, which nature itself offered up to our Lord for shelter. I described how the ox and the donkey (Isaiah 1:3) looked upon their new-born Master in the chilly darkness, warming Him with their breath. We talked about our unique relationship with God and what it means to be made in His image and likeness. But I also reminded them that everything God made is good-.and how all of Creation rejoices at His coming. That He comes to make everything new. This truly good news is cause for celebration, worthy of thanksgiving and a blessing.
On the big day, two major outreach aspects of the event fell nicely into place. First, our new friends from the county animal shelter joined us as promised. They brought not only irresistible puppies and kittens to adopt, but also handmade Christmas ornaments for sale. So they offered
great information and education while raising some needed funds for their outstanding, ongoing work. Second, as we Hoped, members of the general public joined us as well. This gave our parish an opportunity to be a witness of our faith in a latent, nonthreatening manner. The visitors observed glimpses of our theological and liturgical life, and we got a chance to welcome them, engage them and hopefully show them the hospitality of Abraham.
And then there were the blessings themselves. A parish council member counted, and told me later that 55 “clients” had been blessed. Among them were 41 dogs, 6 cats, 2 birds, 2 rabbits, a turtle, a goat-yes, a goat-and 2 stuffed animals (why not?). The dogs ranged from the tiniest Chihuahua to the greatest Dane I’d ever seen. I had the drool on my hands, shoes and service book to prove it. This was hands-on ministry. It made me feel like building an ark. Each encounter represented a fantastic moment of bonding with parishioners and people I’d never met before. Getting down at eye level with their pets and blessing them somehow connected us. This bond was inexplicable but real. Some pets had ailments, and I heard about these, too, from our parishioners and new friends. They knew that what was important to them was important to me-and most importantly, to our Church.
A young lady who was with us from the county shelter even pulled me aside for twenty minutes about halfway through the blessing. She told me she had a friend who was depressed and thinking about hurting herself. This young lady was worried and deeply nervous about what might happen to her friend. We talked, exchanged numbers and followed up on her concerns. God put us together on this day-somehow-and some good came of this unlikely encounter. It’s amazing what happens when we put ourselves out there.
As for my little JOY helpers, it was really inspiring and satisfying to see our children hard at work. Fresh from their fun session about St. Modestos; they were ready for action. They served the adults hot cocoa and cookies. They constantly ran to and from the parish hall refilling water bowls, gathering more doggy treats and looking for makeshift toys for anxious critters to play with. They were in charge of a unique ministry: they were caring for something; they were having fun at Church; they were taking good care of what God made. Their excitement was contagious.
At the end of the afternoon, as we were cleaning up, there was an unexpected and final blessing of the day. In the eleventh hour, an SUV roared up and screeched to a halt in front of the church. A couple I’d never met emerged, explaining that their beloved Golden Retriever was dying of cancer. He’d had several surgeries, but things weren’t looking good. They told me that they weren’t members of our community, but they had read about the event in the paper and really wanted me to bless their dog. Maybe it would help. Maybe it would put them at ease. They felt they had to do something. We tried to let them know that even though they weren’t “members” of our community, they now belonged to our parish family. After they’d left, more than a few of us were moved. We had all made new friends, and hopefully we had offered something to one another through this unique circumstance.
I share these experiences because they’ve been instructional and revealing to me. I saw my parishioners in a new light, and I was gifted with a host of opportunities to develop new relationships. I saw our children get excited about a hands-on ministry and watched some of my shyest parishioners evangelize without even knowing it. And then there was the greatest and most awesome blessing of the whole day-the holy water of the Agiasmos service enveloping us, refreshing us, renewing us and reminding us that what God made is good. This was my planned “big message of the day,” but I never really had to say the words. No sermon-to the relief of all-was necessary. For lack of a better expression, it was “acted out” by God’s people.
Since that inaugural event in Florida five years ago, I’ve seen this ministry grow and mature. At my current parish in Weston, MA, we now invite a host of animal “helping” agencies, offer microchip clinics and even feature a “doggie buffet,” compliments of a local pet supplier. OCF college students, who are part of a mentoring program within our parish, run the event. They engage our HOPE and JOY families for support. To grow the community outreach aspect, we’ve also begun to invite law enforcement: Cappy and Mighty Mouse, two equine members of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Mounted Unit, are now regular participants and major attractions. Mouse, a miniature horse, is a big draw. And this is not only a thrill for our parish children, but it also tightens the vital, indispensable bonds between our parish and the general community. We’ve even brought on a parishioner who is a professional photographer to capture that perfect Christmas shot of each pet. He accepts a small offering for each print and gives all proceeds to his local animal shelter.
What could you expect if you started a similar ministry in your parish? At the end of a pet blessing day, your priest may end up with fur on his robes. Your parish council members may shake their fist as they “patrol” the church lawn for early Christmas gifts. Some of your fellow parishioners may decide that “Fr. John has finally gone off the deep end,” and your parking lot will need a serious hose down. But that’s okay. It’s worth it. What God made is good, and it’s our duty to proclaim this truth-and act on it with creativity, conviction and great love.
FR.ALEX CHETSAS ISTHE ASSISTANT PRIESTAT ST. DEMETRIOS GREEK ORTHODOX CHLIRCH IN WESTON, MA. HE HAS SERVED PARISHESIN CALIFORNIA AND FLORIDA, AND HE NOW RESIDES IN WAYLAND. MA, WITH HIS WIFE. BRANDY, AND THEIR CHILDREN. PHOEBE AND BRAM.
Going Deeper St. Modestos of Jerusalem (Dec. 16) St. Modestos was born in 292 in Palestine. When he was less than a year old, his parents were put to death for practicing Christianity, and he was brought into the imperial household and raised as a pagan. As a teenager, though, an awakening occurred. He learned of his parents’ martyrdom, and that he had actually been baptized before their execution. A Christian goldsmith began to teach and mentor him, but the man’s jealous sons eventually sold St. Modestos into slavery in Egypt. He remained there seven years before gaining his freedom (he converted his master’s family to Christianity) after returning to Jerusalem. After a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai, he made his way to a monastery, where he was ordained a priest. He quickly became known for his devotion to the faith, holiness and loving nature. After years of dedicated service, he was selected as Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was during these latter years of his life that his long-time devotion to God’s creation intensified and blossomed. He had a particular affection for animals-he saw animals as sublime and mysterious gifts from God. Often he would bless livestock, praying for their health and productivity and giving thanks for all Creation.
OTHER SAINTS WITH A SPECIAL CONNECTION TO NATURE & ANIMALS: St. Seraphim of Sarov (Jan. 2), shared his bread with birds and wild animals; was often visited by a bear that obeyed his words. St. Blaise/Vlassios of Sebaste (Feb. 11), blessed and healed sick animals by laying his hands on them. St. Mark the Ascetic (Mar. 5) healed a hyena cub and taught it to leave the sheep of the poor in peace. St. Mary of Egypt (April 1 and 5th Sunday of Lent) after her death, a lion guarded her body in the desert and helped St. Zosimas bury her. St. Elijah (July 20) nourished by ravens, which brought him bread and meat in the morning and
“BLESSING OF THE ANIMALS” PRAYER
O Lord Jesus Christ our God, compassionate and all-good, Who fashioned in wisdom both the invisible and the visible creation; Who pour your mercies upon everything that has been made by You; Who, in Your loving providence, provide for all Your creatures, from the first to the last; hear my prayer and drive away and banish every injury and illness from all these cattle (or pets, sheep, horses or other animals), which are being used for the livelihood of your servants [name(s)]. Yes, Lord, look down from Your holy dwelling place and bless all these animals, as you blessed the flocks of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of all Your faithful servants. Multiply them, grant them health, strength and productivity; render them robust and successful in the various services which they render so that their owners, having derived abundant benefits from them, may engage in all good works which are pleasing to You, and may glorify on earth Your Holy Name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.