Pets — our fellow travelers on the spiritual journey

Bella the dog with a sister from the Sisters of Jesus Our Hope in New Jersey
Bella the dog with a sister from the Sisters of Jesus Our Hope in New Jersey
Animal lovers sometimes get a bad rap for treating their pets too much like people. But is there more to the pet-person relationship than meets the eye? Some pet owners say their cats and dogs and even their horses have led them further down the spiritual path by demonstrating the real meaning of patience, unconditional love, trust and loyalty.  

Walking the dog on a frigid winter night or scooping out cat litter day after day certainly has the potential to teach us a little humility, but can animals really take us deeper than that? Can Fido or Whiskers give us spiritual insights we might otherwise miss? 

St. Francis of Assisi obviously thought animals had something to offer their human counterparts. The saint was said to have tamed a wolf and preached to birds, certainly more than most pet owners can claim. But Francis is by no means unique in our Catholic tradition. In fact, even Pope Benedict XVI is known for his special affection for feline friends, who had free rein of the gardens at his home in Germany. He is the first pope to have an authorized biography written by a cat (see sidebar). 

Source of comfort 

For people without pets, it can seem like a stretch to imagine a cat or dog having any impact on faith life, and yet those on the other side of the debate can point to specific times in their lives when an animal led them closer to God and to their true selves. 

“They definitely contribute to our lives. They are companions. The spiritual part is a little harder to define,” said Father Joseph Kraker, who “co-authored” two books with his second dog, Vinnie, who lived with him at St. Vincent Church in Akron, Ohio. 

“I always like to think I’m Franciscan in the sense that you just revel in the beauty of God’s creation. Everything in creation reflects in some way the presence of God. What does a dog reveal to me about God — outside the obvious love and fidelity? I guess it would be the playfulness of God because they do make us laugh. They help you appreciate that God created this,” Father Kraker told Our Sunday Visitor. “The spirituality is there if you can keep reminding yourself that this is God’s gift.” 

In terms of parish life, Vinnie (who was preceded by Timmy and followed by Minnie) also helped Father Kraker relate to people and understand in some small way — because of the bond they shared — the depth of the bond parishioners must share with their children. The “heartstrings are connected” in a similar way, he said. 

Vinnie’s ability to bring people together inspired Father Kraker to tackle issues such as death, letting go, prejudice and more in his book “Vinnie Here: Fanciful Conversations Between a Pastor and His Dog” (Xulon Press, $15.99). He later published “Through the Year with Vinnie: Cycle A” (Xulon Press, $16.99) focusing on the Sunday Gospels and the lessons they provide through the eyes and words of his beloved pooch, making Vinnie a bit of a celebrity. 

Father Kraker jokes that people often say hello to his dog first then to him, but, on a more serious note, he points out that his parish dogs seem to sense when certain parishioners are in need of a little extra TLC. 

“They are a great source of comfort to people. That’s why I have a dog as pastor. People immediately relate to the dog. … I had someone in here today whose mother is dying, and immediately the dog seems to have that innate sense that something’s wrong here and she needs to be there,” he said. “It happens all the time. Someone is upset and the dog goes right to them, and I just say, ‘Wow, I wish I could be like that.’” 

He recalled visiting a parishioner in hospice one day, and the woman’s family asked if Minnie could come in for a visit. Minnie got up on the woman’s bed and laid beside her so she could pet her. 

“In a sense it was an extension of my ministry, that she could bring to that person a little bit of joy,” said Father Kraker. 

Caring for God’s creation 

Jan Fredericks, a convert to Catholicism who has been heading up the U.S. branch of the international group Catholic Concern for Animals (CCA), told Our Sunday Visitor that taking a spiritual approach not only to pet ownership but to animals in general is in keeping with Scripture and the teachings of our faith. 

Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the subject: “Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness” (No. 2416). Although the Catechism says that it is “legitimate” for humans to use animals for food and clothing, it makes the point that it is “contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” (No. 2418). 

CCA focuses on having compassion toward animals and “bringing awareness of animals into the Church’s agenda,” says Fredericks, who also founded and heads N.J.-based God’s Creatures Ministry, which helps people who cannot afford their veterinary bills or food for their pets. The group worked with local Catholic Charities to coordinate the delivery of pet food to Meals on Wheels customers who are pet owners. Elderly people in particular reap many benefits — physical, emotional and spiritual — from having a pet in their home, Fredericks told OSV. 

Fredericks pointed to Isaiah 11 — the wolf lying down with the lamb, the child and cobra peacefully coexisting — as a reminder that people and animals have always been meant to live in harmony according to God’s plan. “We want to make people aware that animals are important, too. God created them, and they should be helped. God cares for each animal, and he put them in our care, and that should be part of our faith walk,” said Fredericks, whose 10-year-old dog became her “companion” after Fredericks’ landlord didn’t want the dog anymore. “She is just like a soul mate.” 

Healing bridge 

So, pets don’t necessarily affect our spiritual lives directly, but in sometimes-subtle ways they allow us to see ourselves or others through new eyes. Caring for a seriously ill pet, having to put a beloved animal down, watching a parent or child bond with a cat or dog — all of it can begin to color our view of the world, of God’s creation and our place in it. And that, in turn, can begin to shape or further our spiritual life. 

Jeanne Grunert, a writer and lifelong animal lover, has experienced the healing power of pet ownership. When she was 20 years old, her mother died of multiple sclerosis, leaving Grunert and her father at a crossroads in their relationship. Her cat turned out to be the unlikely link that pulled the two together. 

“My dad and I did not have the best relationship while I was growing up, and after my mom died and all my siblings moved out of the house, it was just the two of us without the buffer of my mom and my brothers and sisters around us all the time. We had a lot of trouble communicating without yelling at each other. But having the cat helped,” said Grunert. 

After initially going through a “you’d better take care of that cat or else” phase, her father began to bond with the cat. She would come down to breakfast and find the cat sitting on his lap. 

“It helped me see another side of my dad, and the cat gave us something in common to talk about. I’d call home to let him know I’d be late from work, and we’d end up talking about the cat, sharing funny stories about her and things like that. It gave us something positive to talk about and focus on,” she said. “She was really a healing bridge between us.” 

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York. Her latest book is “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” (Alpha, $16.95). 

Tales of a pet-loving pontiff (sidebar)

“Joseph and Chico: The Life of Pope Benedict as Told by a Cat” (Ignatius Press, $17.95) is an “authorized” biography of the pope, who is known for his love of animals, especially cats. In an introduction to the children’s book, Father Georg Ganswein, the pope’s personal secretary, writes that everything in the book is true. 

“The pope also loves cats and all animals because they are God’s creatures, and often, like Chico, they can teach us things that are worth hearing,” Father Ganswein writes. 

What follows is Chico’s version of the life story of his “best friend,” Pope Benedict, from his birth and childhood through his seminary years right up until he was elected pope. Stories about significant moments with cats, birds and even a bear dot the story. 

Chico, a ginger tabby cat who lives across the street from the pope’s home in Pentling, Germany, recalls when the two first met: “Do you know how I found out he was a cat lover? Because he put a statue of a cat out in his backyard. Not the cutest cat in the world, but it was still a cat.” 

And, to be sure, that cat statue still guards the pope’s garden at his home in Germany. Although he could not bring his own cats to the Vatican, his concern and affection for the strays of Rome was well known during his more than two decades as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  

“Joseph and Chico” was followed up by another biography, “Max and Benedict: A Bird’s Eye View of the Pope’s Daily Life” (Ignatius Press, $17.95). This time, a blue rock-thrush named Max gives readers insights into the pontiff’s life at the Vatican.

Catholic Pet Ownership (sidebar)

Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Catholic households report being pet owners. Here is a breakdown of the type of pets Catholics own, by percentage: 

Dog 49 percent 

Cat 32 percent 

Fish 12 percent 

Reptile 5 percent 

Bird 4 percent 

Rodent/rabbit 3 percent 

Other 2 percent 

Horse 1 percent 

Source: 2008-09 American National Election Study 

Read "Testimonials of pet-loving Catholics"