We welcome to the blog a guest post by Patricia Appelbaum, author of St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Most Popular Saint. How did a thirteenth-century Italian friar become one of the best-loved saints in America? Around the nation today, St. Francis of Assisi is embraced as the patron saint of animals, beneficently presiding over hundreds of Blessing of the Animals services on October 4, St. Francis’s Catholic feast day. Not only Catholics, however, but Protestants and other Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and nonreligious Americans commonly name him as one of their favorite spiritual figures. Drawing on a dazzling array of art, music, drama, film, hymns, and prayers, Appelbaum explains what happened to make St. Francis so familiar and meaningful to so many Americans.
In anticipation of the annual Feast of St. Francis and the blessing of the animals this Sunday, October 4, Appelbaum shares the history of giving blessings—a practice that began with Catholics and spread to Protestants.
It’s the season of blessings again. In many places there are blessings of backpacks for the new school year. Here and there, bicycles that were not blessed in spring will have another chance. On October 4, religious groups all over the country and around the world will hold “blessings of the animals” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. What I find remarkable is how many of these ceremonies take place in Protestant churches.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was growing up, Protestants did not bless things. Events like the “blessing of the fleet” or the “blessing of the cars” were strictly Roman Catholic. We outsiders thought they were kind of quaint. There were exceptions, of course: many Protestants asked blessings on meals, and Methodists and Lutherans sometimes blessed houses. But these practices were small-scale and largely private, not large public events. Blessings were generally for people, not for things.
Protestant worship books confirm this absence. For example, the Book of Common Worship of 1932—an ecumenical collection of model services—has no blessing rites at all. The Congregational worship book for 1948 included only the blessing of a civil marriage. Presbyterians in 1966 provided for table grace, but not for services of blessing. Into the 1980s, the pattern was similar.
By contrast, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1907 says, “Inanimate things that subserve the equitable needs and conveniences of society may receive from the Church the stamp of her benediction.” Catholic clergy could bless seeds, working animals, mills, telegraphs, and steam engines, among other things. Today, American Catholic practice allows for an entire book of authorized blessing rites.
In the mid-1980s, though, things began to change for Protestants. Continue reading ‘Patricia Appelbaum: Protestant Blessings and Cultural Change’ »