While Americans associate the blessing of animals with the feast of St. Francis, Italy itself has a different tradition. Every January 17, the feast day of St. Anthony the Great, unusual guests take to the cobblestones around St. Peter’s Basilica. Cows, horses, rabbits, chickens, and many other animals wait in stalls not far from Bernini’s colonnade.
This morning, under an unusually gray Roman sky, hundreds of smiling children, surprised tourists, and amused priests and nuns wandered through the stands taking photos and reading the presentations of the animals in the pens.
Organized by the Italian Breeders’ Association (AIA) and Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farmers’ association, the event began — as it does every year — with a Mass attended by almost 600 people in the basilica. Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, then stepped out onto the forecourt to offer the traditional blessing.
A well-established tradition
“Those who work the land, who raise animals and who care for them, are agents in the story of creation […] In this way, they are also protagonists in the safeguarding of humanity,” explained the Italian cardinal to a large crowd.
Some Romans, familiar with this tradition, had also come with their pets.
“With this blessing, since St. Anthony is the protector of animals, we hope that everything will go well, for all breeders in general,” said Roberto Paradisi, a horse breeder based some 30 kilometers from Rome, who never misses this event. This year, he decided to bring along a beautiful black horse of the “Tolfetano” breed, originally from the Lazio region.
The blessing of cattle on St. Anthony the Great’s feast is a common tradition throughout Italy. In Milan, for example, the bishop is accustomed to visiting farms on this day. “A 100 or 50 years ago, you could still see statues of St. Anthony in cowsheds,” explains Claudio Destro, vice-president of AIA. He has taken part in the event every year since 2010.
He runs a farm on the outskirts of Rome, and this time brought a cow with him to St. Peter’s. “For me, as a Catholic, the blessing represents an encouragement, an incentive,” he adds.
An opportunity to connect with people
These blessings of animals in the heart of the Eternal City are also an opportunity for breeders to communicate with the public about their work. When Cardinal Gambetti passed by the stables, he stopped to chat with them. “This event is useful because we show city dwellers, consumers, how we’re moving in the direction of animal welfare and food safety,” says Claudio.
“It’s also a moment of closeness with the whole community and population,” says Ettore Prandini, president of Coldiretti, who had set up a stand near the stables to promote a campaign against synthetic feed. He added that he appreciated Pope Francis’ constant appeals on behalf of the environment. “We farmers are the true guardians of creation, and we want to continue to be,” said Roberto Nocentini, president of the AIA.