Happy St. Francis day, everyone. The Boston Globe this morning features a striking picture of a priest in his vestments beside a line of uniformed police officers on horseback, all glowing in the golden October sun. The priest is a chaplain to the Massachusetts State Police, and he has been blessing the animals – the state police horses and dogs.
This is a marvelous mashup of church, state, and unaffiliated religion. Here are public functionaries, state employees, participating in a religious ceremony conducted by a formally ordained leader from an organized religious body. That’s not unheard of, of course: even Congress opens with prayers. But it still raises a little tension around the First Amendment. Does it point to establishment of religion? I take the priest to be a Roman Catholic, but there is no indication that all the human participants were Catholics – or Christians, or any kind of believers. On the other hand, there’s nothing to say that the blessing couldn’t have been performed by a Protestant or a Jew, for example.
But the rationale is not framed in religious terms at all. It’s presented in terms of the human-animal bond. The commander of the State Police Mounted Unit says that the blessing “served to strengthen the ties between the animals and their troopers and officers” and also “highlight[s] the importance of animals in police work.” “It really makes that bond with your horse and dog just that much stronger,” she said. “Even if you’re not someone who goes to church, just knowing that your animal was blessed brings back that connection.” (By “that connection,” I think she means the connection between human and animal, not the connection between individual and church.)
I’ve suggested elsewhere that the popularity of animal blessings arises in part from a need to recognize and affirm the human-animal bond — not so much an institutional need as an urge that many individual people feel. In developed countries, this need has grown in the last fifty years or so: companion animals have taken on more importance, while everyday contact with working or wild animals has diminished. Here is more evidence for that thesis.
But the sergeant’s comments also provide a hedge against religious meaning – which may be a necessary caution in the public realm. The real effect of the blessing, she says, is on humans. She doesn’t claim that the blessing affects the animal. Instead, “knowing that your animal was blessed” — the human’s knowledge — is what matters.
There’s also room for “spiritual but not religious” people here. I’d speculate that this event is another example of the idea of blessing as transaction. It’s a circumscribed action without further commitment on either side. If you bring your animal to receive a blessing, you may feel that the blessing has some kind of numinous power – whether divine or holy or just “spiritual,” as the Globe’s photo caption puts it. You may feel that it provide some kind of strength or protection to your animal. But you don’t have to go any further than that – belong to a community or think about the nature of the divine being or anything. Nor does the community ask anything further of you.
And Francis? He wasn’t a big fan of worldly authority figures, but he didn’t go out of his way to reject them, either. And he paid attention to all kinds of animalswild and domestic, working and merely beautiful. He’d probably have kind words for a police horse.