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Animals blessed in tribute to St. Francis of Assisi


NEW YORK (CNN) -- New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine had a few unusual visitors Sunday -- an elephant, a camel, a monkey and a pet pig among them.

It was all part of a celebration dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. Many Christians -- in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities across the United States -- paid tribute to the 13th century saint by holding a special service to bless animals.

"We honor today one of the most simple, plain, unassuming saints," said the Very Rev. Harry Pritchett of St. John the Divine. "St. Francis is noted for his amazing hospitality to all creatures."

The Italian saint, who died in 1226, was well-known for his preaching, poverty and gentleness. Tradition holds that animals responded to his kindness by listening to his sermons.

Ever since, Christians have commemorated Francis on the first Sunday in October by blessing animals. The services were first conceived as a way to give thanks for the creatures who served man by tilling in the fields or pulling artillery on the battlefield -- or filling plates on the dinner table.

This religious reverence for animals is, of course, not simply a Christian tradition.

"In most of the other religions of the world, there's a sense that respecting animal life is part of the natural makeup of human beings and, indeed, part of the moral sensitivity that makes us human," said Dr. Ron Long of Hunter College.

And in recent years, the blessing services in honor of St. Francis have taken on a new connotation.

"With our increasing attention to the environment and to ecological issues and ecological justice, (it) has taken on a whole new meaning and power," said Pritchett. "I think the message really is that if we're all creatures of God, nothing is expendable."

Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist contributed to this report.

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