Virginia Church Welcomes Four-Legged Friends

Many churches offer blessings for pets on St. Francis of Assisi Day each October. But one congregation just outside Washington, D.C., offers regular worship services for pets and their people.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Sit. Stay. Pray. Many churches offer blessings for pets on St. Francis of Assisi Day each October, but NPR's Jason DeRose found one congregation just outside Washington, DC, that offers regular worship services for pets and for their people.

Father ROB MEROLA (St. Matthew's Episcopal Church): Hallelujah. Christ is risen.

Congregation: The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah.

JASON DeROSE reporting:

It is brutally hot and Father Rob Merola is wearing a faded T-shirt, khaki shorts and deck shoes. About three dozen congregants, including dogs, cats, hamsters and mice, are sitting on and under benches in the woods next to St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Sterling, Virginia. Martha Olsen(ph) leads the congregation in a particularly appropriate reading of Psalm 1:19.

Ms. MARTHA OLSEN (Congregant): When your work goes forth, it gives light.

Congregation: It gives understanding to the simple.

Ms. OLSEN: I open my mouth and pant.

Congregation: I long for your commandment.

DeROSE: Father Rob says he doesn't want to get into whether animals have souls and he says inviting people to bring their pets to church isn't just some gimmicky form of outreach. It's good theology.

Fr. MEROLA: Because people experience love and affection from animals without a lot of the down sides that they experience in their relationships with humans. You know, those relationships become one more window to help us understand how very much God loves us.

DeROSE: And Father Rob says the Bible is filled with stories involving animals--Daniel in the lions' den, Jonah and the whale, Adam, Eve and the serpent.

Fr. MEROLA: We've had people bring very large pythons. And the first animal blessing I ever did, we brought an alligator to it.

DeROSE: The West Highland terrier, Spunky, and the black Lab, Lucy, are regulars. Their owners slip them treats during communion, nothing holy, just Snausages and Milk Bones. After communion, Father Rob makes the sign of the cross on each pet's forehead.

Fr. MEROLA: ...in the name of the Lord. Lucy, be blessed in the name of the Lord.

(Soundbite of cat hissing)

Ms. JUDITH SNOW (Congregant): Shh.

Fr. MEROLA: What's her name?

Ms. SNOW: It's Timmy.

DeROSE: The tabby named Timmy isn't all that happy, baring his fangs when Father Rob tries to bless him.

Ms. SNOW: He won't bite you.

Fr. MEROLA: All right.

Ms. SNOW: He won't bite.

Fr. MEROLA: Blessed in the name of the Lord, yeah.

Ms. SNOW: You're scaring everybody.

DeROSE: Timmy's owner, Judith Snow, is a first-timer here, but she and Timmy are not new to pet blessings.

Ms. SNOW: God's plan is to reconcile all of creation to himself and part of our original purpose was to take care of animals and help them to know God, and if we know God, it's our responsibility to help them remember what it was like before the fall and look forward to what's to come.

DeROSE: What's to come in St. Matthew's is an animal-themed Bible school, Serengeti Trek, where kids are wild about God.

Jason DeRose, NPR News.

HANSEN: It's 22 minutes before the hour.

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