The road outside St John the Evangelist Church in Ballard Estate had an unusual group of churchgoers on Sunday. Different breeds of dogs on leash, kittens in their baskets, birds in cages and fish swimming in cloth covered fish tanks waited patiently with their humans for the church to open its door. The priest of the parish, Father Joe D’souza, greeted the animals and humans, and proceeded with his services of the mass, amidst much tail wagging and some faint bird calls.
It was the annual ‘Pet Blessings Day’ at the church, which drew pet-owners from the suburbs, and as far away as Navi Mumbai and Thane. “On October 4, we celebrate the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, who is the patron saint of animals and plants in our faith. I personally adore animals and all of God’s creatures. So, whichever parish I am at, I ensure that we organise ‘Pet Blessings’ on one of the Sundays in the month of October,” Father D’souza said.
At the Noronha household, Sunday morning began chaotically as all three of their pet dogs, a poodle and two indies, had to be showered and made ready for ‘Pet Blessings’ at the church. “Our mother, who passed away last year, was adamant that we get our dogs blessed annually,” said Aditi, the oldest of the three sisters. “They are our children in all sense and purposes. We want them to be included in our faith,” the 38-year-old IT professional said.
For Deepak Gonsalves, getting his 7-year-old Pomeranian to Father D’souza for a blessing is very important. “My Tuffy suffers from liver disease. Father D’souza has prayed for him before as well, and I just want him to have a peaceful and happy life. Prayers work wonders,” the 45-year-old Thane resident said. He has been taking his dog to this blessing ceremony every year. “He never fusses, and is always at peace around the good father. It is very heartwarming,” he said. While pet parents bring their furred babies in complete finery, the blessing ritual is hardly grand.
“I pray aloud for the longevity and health of all of God’s creatures and then sprinkle the Holy Water on the animals. Those animals who are suffering due to chronic ill health or old age, or are just not able to adapt to their surroundings, I take them separately and bless them, sprinkling Holy water on them individually,” Father D’souza said. Every year, he added, he has seen different animals being brought to him. “This year, for the first time
I blessed an iguana and a sea gull. It is heartwarming for me to see the creatures being loved and cared for by humans,” he said.
The seagull was rescued by famous bird rescuer of Mumbai, Pradeep D’souza, three years ago. It was brought in by Jonita D’souza, Pradeep’s sister-in-law. “We have not domesticated the bird, but we take care of it. The bird didn’t have a wing when it was rescued and since then it has stayed around us,” she said.
“We wanted it to be blessed for a long healthy life,” Jonita added. For Sheena D’souza, who brought her parrot, Pip, to the blessing, this was a way of including the bird into her family. “The pets are left alone on most Sundays and are generally left out of religious ceremonies. So any way of including them into the religion and more into our lives is a happy occasion for me,” she said.
However, Father D’souza believes it has more to do with love for animals and less to do with religious rituals. “The practice is not limited to only one faith. In fact, so many non-Christians come to get their pets blessed,” he said. Rahul Narevekar, the candidate from Colaba, also attended the ceremony with his wife and their pet dog and pet fish in a tank; was among the many people who came to the church on Sunday.
While Catholics internationally celebrate ‘Pet Blessings’ with big events in Philippines and USA, in India, the practice is limited. “St Francis of Assisi is known for his love of animals and other creatures. I have made it a point to continue the tradition wherever I go. But I worry that the priests who come after me may not be as open towards animals and birds, and might stop this practice. But I will continue wherever I go,” said Father D’souza, who has two more years in this parish.