As October 4th—the Feast Day of St. Francis—draws near, many Catholic and Episcopalian churches in the US hold special Blessings of the Animals, religious ceremonies to honor both the beloved patron saint of animals and recognize the important bond humans have with the animal kingdom. You may think that Italians are also gearing up to celebrate their cats, dogs, hamsters, and every other domestic pet imaginable…but you’d be wrong.
Though the Feast Day of St. Francis is an important religious holiday in Italy, as Francis is the country’s patron saint (alongside St. Catherine of Siena), Italy holds its Blessings of the Animals much earlier in the calendar year on January 17th, the Feast Day of St. Anthony the Abbot (also known as Anthony the Great or St. Anthony of Egypt). Though St. Francis was assigned all the animals, St. Anthony’s goodwill focuses on domesticated animals (pets and livestock), as well as farmers…so it makes sense that this historically agricultural country would be more drawn to the more pragmatic saint.
This is just one of many “lost in translation” traditions that get slightly modified during the Atlantic crossing from Italy to the New World. The “traditional Italian” Feast of the Seven Fishes is another, of course, as are many Italian-American dishes that are distant cousins from their original iterations in the Old Country.
The good news is that it’s fun to participate in both celebrations for St. Francis and for St. Anthony the Abbot if you happen to be in Italy in the fall and winter. Here are some religious (and secular) events surrounding both saints.
Feast Day of St. Francis (October 4th)
St. Francis of Assisi is one of the two patron saints of Italy—though not, curiously, of his own hometown; Assisi’s patron saint is San Rufino, the first bishop of Assisi, celebrated on August 11th—and many cities celebrate the saint by closing schools and offices.
The most important celebrations of St. Francis take place in Assisi, which stretch across two days. On the saint’s actual Feast Day, a High Mass is celebrated in the Basilica of Saint Francis, which is almost always attended by the Pope and broadcast on national television. A smattering of lesser Masses, religious ceremonies, and processions also take place in and around Assisi and in other locations that have a particular significance in the life of the saint.
The following day, celebrations shift toward the secular as Assisi hosts a lively outdoor market that fills much of the old town. Vendor stalls line the streets, most locals take at least half the day off from work to stroll through town and greet friends they may only see once or twice a year, and the day is capped off by a rollicking “tombola” (a precursor of Bingo) organized for a local charity.
This isn’t to say that there are no animal blessing ceremonies at all in Italy on and around the feast day of St. Francis, of course. There are churches dedicated to the saint in towns across the peninsula, and many do hold small blessings for the local cats and dogs. But the bigger animal blessing day by far in Italy is the…
Feast Day of St. Anthony the Abbot (January 17th)
Where celebrations of St. Francis are largely centered around the town of Assisi, the feast day of St. Anthony the Abbot is recognized by special Blessing of the Animal Masses and processions across the country. By far the most famous, however, is the ceremony held at the Vatican (which went virtual in 2020 due to Coronavirus restrictions).
Each year on January 17th, the Italian Association of Livestock Farmers (AIA) assembles an outdoor stable in Piazza Pio XII (in front of St Peter’s Square in Vatican City) to house a number of horses, cows, sheep, goats, and chickens, as well as dogs. The stable is open to the public from morning to early afternoon and visiting is a popular annual tradition for many Roman families. That same morning, a Mass is celebrated for Italy’s farmers that ends with a blessing for all the animals present. At noon, an equestrian procession is held along Via della Conciliazione from Largo Giovanni XXIII to Piazza Pio XII featuring service horses from the Italian police forces.
Though the Vatican blessing gets the most press, parishes across Italy (including Assisi’s Santa Maria degli Angeli in the valley below the old town) hold animal blessings, usually on the Sunday closest to the feast day. In more rural communities, you’ll see ribbon-bedecked oxen, cows, horses, donkeys, all varieties of courtyard animals and, of course, any sort of pet you can imagine. Many parishes also host charity lunches after the Mass and/or procession with the proceeds going to local animal welfare organizations.
After the animals are taken home, they are left on their own for the night. According to Italian legend, animals acquire the ability to speak on the night of the feast of St. Anthony the Abbot, but it’s bad luck to hear what they have to say so traditionally farmers and their families stay clear of the barns and stables on that night!