The boy who would become St. Francis of Assisi led a group of youngsters known for extravagant all-night parties before he founded a religious order of monks who forsook all material possessions in the 13th century. You can't starve a fasting man or steal from an impoverished man, Francis came to understand. Only by having nothing could one truly be free. Often depicted surrounded by animals, St. Francis preached a love for all of God's creation, and insisted a sparrow was as much his brother as the Pope. (Interestingly, the first time the rag-adorned Francis was presented to the Pope, the pontiff threw him out.)
The Reverend William Miller will commemorate the saint's festival day with a Midtown Animal Blessing, the one service a year when parishioners' nonhuman loved ones are invited to attend. Though dogs made up the majority of the 150 surprisingly well behaved animal attendees last year, ferrets, rabbits, birds, hamsters, cats and a cadre of stuffed animals also joined the congregation. This year invitations have been extended to some police horses and the Houston unit of rescue dogs recently sent to New York. Animals must be either leashed or caged at the service.
Last year when a woman asked Miller how he kept a straight face during the ceremony, he confessed, "I can't, but it doesn't make it any less meaningful." Pets are a part of the family, and while the festival is in the spirit of fun, the blessing can be somber. Some bring their terminally ill companions for prayers of healing.
The reverend understands the importance of animals to his congregants' lives. He is currently writing a book on animals and spirituality called The Gospel According to Sam, after his pooch Sam Houston. As Miller jokingly points out, it did take more days for God to create the animals than it did to make the humans. That's got to count for something.