My local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, recently reported on the theft of a statue of St. Francis from the grounds a local Roman Catholic church.The church is used only for offices these days, as the local diocese closed it in a wave of consolidations of Catholic parishes. The Gazette’s photo shows a statue that’s closer to a Protestant or popular styles than to a traditional Catholic one, a figure surrounded by animals and birds, not gazing at a cross or contemplating a skull. What’s even more remarkable is the story from a local resident who called for the statue’s return via a Facebook page. She told the Gazette that when her cat disappeared some years ago, she left a note in Francis’s flower basket asking for the saint’s help. An hour later, she passed that way again in the midst of a sunshower. The combination of sun and rain caused the statue to be surrounded by rainbows. The resident associated this manifestation with the Rainbow Bridge story, a bit of folklore that circulates widely in print and on the Web. It says that the souls of deceased pets await the arrival of their human companions at the Rainbow Bridge, where human and animal pass over together into the next life.
It’s not clear whether she is a Catholic parishioner. Christian teaching in general does not affirm any afterlife for animals. Yet the Rainbow Bridge narrative provides comfort for many people, and it’s not limited to non-believers. The religious imagination – “religious” in the sense of concern with life, death, and our ultimate destiny – operates within organized religion as well as outside it.
By the way, the statue reappeared a few days later, wrapped in a plastic trash bag and leaning against a fence. Had it been there all along? Or did some sinner repent? Would that someone would return the lovely Frederick Warren Allen figure, long missing from Meerwood in New Hampshire.