Animals and the name of St Francis of Assisi are essentially synonymous so when we refer to the blessing of animals, it is immediately assumed that such a blessing will take place on St Francis’ feastday. However, in parts of Europe and particularly in Rome, the blessing of animals takes place annually on January the 17th, the feastday of St Anthony, Abbot. St Anthony of Egypt (not to be confused with St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost items) died in the year 356AD and is regarded as the ‘Father 0f Monasticism’ because he chose to live a life of solitude in the desert and attracted many disciples who wished to live a more simple life away from the distractions of the city. It is said that when he first set off to live in the desert, he only had animals for company and so, his name became closely associated with the protection and blessing of animals both wild and domestic.
The custom as practised in Rome was introduced to Moate during the Priorship of Fr Ephrem Corbett who, whilst studying for the priesthood in Rome, had encountered this annual event and believed that it would be greatly appreciated by the local farming community in Moate. Fr Corbett was Prior of Moate in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s so the custom goes back over sixty years. It has been observed annually since that time with the exception of last year, 2021, when the country was under Covid-19 restrictions.
Photos courtesy of @carmelitepastoralcentre
On the day in question there is a priest on duty all day outside the door of the friary church to bless the many and diverse animals that are presented. Those attending also may take away with them some blest salt and holy water for sprinkling on animals left at home and also for sprinkling on the land. In Moate the opportunity is taken to pray for a blessing of the land and the produce of the land. This is a very important day in the annual cycle as the friar’s blessing is perceived as crucial to having a successful and fruitful year.
As the newest member of the community, I had been living in Moate for all of five days before this important day arrived and I found it a most useful day of introduction to the people. There tends to be a constant stream of people and vehicles containing all sorts and sizes of God’s creatures and it is a wonderful opportunity to chat and interact. It would appear that the larger farm animals are brought in for blessing in the morning with the domestic animals coming in later on. It was lovely to behold many dogs renewing their acquaintances as the humans stood about chatting. The weather, of course, on January the 17th was perfect for gathering and interacting. This year was particularly special as it marked a return to the usual routine which had been interrupted by the restrictions of the past two years. People commented on the fact that it was hopeful to be returning to some sort of normality.
This is a good and wholesome practice. It is wonderful to experience at first-hand how important this event is in the Moate annual cycle. God willing, we will be able to maintain this ancient tradition for many years to come. On a personal note, my only regret was that I didn’t get to bless even one cat!
Fr Brian McKay O.Carm.