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By David Briggs
Religion News Service

BAY VILLAGE, Ohio — There was a lot of heavy panting going on in front of St. Raphael Catholic Church earlier this month.
But only after participants had rubbed noses and sniffed one another all over.
Every pooch had its day at the animal blessing service at St.
Raphael, where “Who Let the Dogs Out” was part of the music and treats were distributed before the prayers.
The ceremony was one of a multitude throughout the world on or around Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, which honors the Italian saint famed for his gentle embrace of animals as part of God’s creation.
The services are just one part of a movement recognizing the spiritual needs of pet owners — and their animals.
Spiritual healing is going to the dogs — and cats and gerbils and birds — as religious groups from mainline churches to New Age practitioners sponsor everything from special services to massage therapy and acupuncture.
Christians have been blessing animals since Francis’ death in the 13th century. But the events have become more popular in recent years as both religious liberals and conservatives increasingly see themselves as stewards of God’s creation.
The movement is grounded in biblical texts, from those in Genesis giving human beings responsibility to care for “all animals” to those in the Gospel of Matthew declaring God takes care of the birds in the sky.
Other religious groups, such as Buddhists, hold animal blessing services.
“Every animal matters, and especially the animals we have entered into covenantal relationships with,” said Stephen Webb, author of “On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals,” in a 2000 interview.
The Rev. Tim Gareau began the service at St. Raphael by asking the nearly 100 worshippers to “paws for prayer.”
On a more serious note, he read from Genesis about how God created animals and was pleased with what God saw.
“We thank God for the gift of our pets,” he said. “Pets are a sign of God’s creative presence among us.”
At the end of the service, Gareau and Deacon Larry Gregg greeted every animal, often holding the pet’s face gently in their hands as they said, “May the Lord bless you and be with you.”
Human worshippers who brought their animals on leashes, in strollers and even in baby carriers said the service helps everyone.
Patti Neary-Shadle came so that her dogs “would get blessed and that the Lord would protect them.”
Eileen Shimko came with a neighbor’s dog, Lucky, in her arms. She said that when her own dogs were alive, she taught them to pray. Shimko said she would put her last dog’s paws up on a chair, and then she would pray the rosary with her pet.
She believes the spiritual connection with her pets extends beyond this life. “I think they greet you in heaven,” she said.
It is not only traditional churches that see an increase in interest in the mind-body-spirit relationship between human beings and animals.
Also becoming more popular are animal massage and acupuncture services, animal healing events in Spiritualist communities and the use of practices such as Reiki, a form of healing touch, on animals.
Cindy Pechaitis started her Paws and Relax Pet Massage business in Avon a little less than a year ago.
She said massage can held pets recover from injuries or surgery, or provide comfort and nurture for terminally ill animals.
She believes her work has a spiritual dimension.
“As we evolve with the way we treat our animals, certainly you can get a sense of their needs, their emotions,” she said. “Certainly, I feel a connectedness.”
There is little barking and a lot of tail wagging in the peaceable kingdom at the St. Raphael service, where dogs lay down with cats and gerbils dwelled with birds. Animal owners said their pets can sense the affirming atmosphere.
Barbara Rasgaitis said her dog, Oscar, who has diabetes, experiences the “feeling that he is being loved by God.”
Kat Fairfield brought her three dogs on leashes, and a fourth dog, Tinkerbell, a miniature Pomeranian, in a carrier. She said all the dogs were rescued from homes where they were unwanted or abused.
“I think God blesses all animals,” Fairfield said. “God brings them into our lives at the right time.”
David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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