An important affirmation of John Paul II has raised a great clamour all round the world
The Pope Has Said:
“Animals Too Have Souls,
Just Like Men”
During a public audience in 1990, the Holy Father affirmed that the animals, like men, were given the ‘breath of life’ by God. The Vatican squarely confronted this concept for the first time. At the Pope’s statement, Monsignor Canciani, who welcome dogs and cats into his Church in Rome, said he had “experienced a great joy. Now I sincerely hope that other priests will follow my example …”
by Mimmo Pacifici
Rome, January 1990
Translated by Piera Smith from Genre Magazine and Man/Nature/Animals, January 1990.
“When the Pope stated that ‘also the animals possess a soul and that men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren’, I felt greatly moved. At last my work for the world of animals had been rewarded. I have welcomed my parishioners into Church for Mass accompanied by their dogs, cats and other faithful animal friends for a number of years because I have long recognized the justice in maintaining that all God’s creatures have the right to approach their Creator. My decision has at times caused controversy. But now that the Holy Father has affirmed that the animals are as “near to God as men are”, those people who have criticized me must surely change their opinion.”
The speaker is Monsignor Canciani, 60 years old, Vicar of the Roman Church, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, already well-known the world over for having opened his church doors to animals and because he also specially blesses them together with his parishioners twice a year. Monsignor Canciani is happy because in a homily given at the Vatican during a recent weekly audience the Pope made a number of important statements about the creation of animals and their relationship with men and with God. The Pontiff in fact stated that all animals are “fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect.”
So what did the Holy Father actually say about animals, and why are these words considered to be so important? Let us read together extracts from his homily.
John Paul II quoting from several verses of Genesis spoke of the Divine creative action of the Holy Spirit and said: “…in the account of the Creation, the way in which man was created suggests a relationship with the spirit or ‘breath’ of God. And one reads that after having created man from the dust of the earth, the Lord God “breathed life into his nostrils and man became a living soul”.
The Holy Scriptures thereby make clear that God intervened by means of His breath of life or Spirit to make man a living soul. In man there is the “breath of life” which came from the “breath” of God Himself. In him lives breath which is similar to the very breath of God.
Then the Pontiff spoke of the creation of the animals and said: “In Genesis, Chapter 2, where there is reference to the creation of the animals, there is not given a similar account of their relationship with the divine spirit of God as is given of that relationship with man. From the previous chapter we learn that “Man was created in the image and likeness of God”.
THE DIVINE SPARK OF LIFE
“However, other texts state that animals have the breath of life and were given it by God. In this respect man, created by the hand of God, is identical with all other living creatures. And so in Psalm 103* there is no distinction between man and beasts when it reads, addressing God: “…These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat** in due course. That thou givest them, they gather: thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good.”
The psalmist continues: “Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.” The existence therefore of all living creatures depends on the living spirit/breath of God that not only creates but also sustains and renews the face of the earth.”
This affirmation of the Pontiff has aroused enormous interest the world over and has overjoyed many thousands of Catholics who for many years have been deeply concerned that the Church should reiterate and give back to animals the proper respect and moral dignity due to the animal world which is often discriminated against and long been considered inferior to that of men.
“This discourse by Pope Wojtyla is very important and significant” explains the distinguished theologian Carlo Molari who for many years has been Professor of Theology and Dogma at the University of Urbino. “It is a ‘sign of the times’ because it demonstrates the Church’s desire and deep concern to clarify present confused thinking and attitudes towards the animal kingdom. There should be no need, but the Pontiff in reiterating that the animals came into being because of the direct action of the “breath” of God wanted to say that also these creatures as well as man are possessed of the divine spark of life and that living quality that is the soul. And are therefore not inferior beings or only of a purely material reality.”
“If one goes on to contemplate that the word “animal” is derived from that of ‘anima’ or soul, one understands, as the Pope explains, that animals are indeed “touched” by the first principle of life which is the Holy Spirit. But the intention of the Pope when he defines the animals as being composed of both body and soul is not only meant to convey their value in a metaphysical sense, but above all also in a moral sense specifically that we must respect all the creatures of God. Clearly therefore because the animal possesses the same “breath” of life as man, men must demonstrate proper and total solidarity with the creatures that surround him. He must keep in his mind that there is an animal life around him and at the same time must try to love and respect it. And perhaps the profound and true message of the Pontiff is that we must live in close harmony, and with love towards animals and all of nature surrounding us.”
“However”, concludes theologian Carlo Molari, “it must be restated that there remains a distinction between the soul of an animal and that of man. According to Scripture the animal is destined to perish. It is mortal by definition, unlike man who continues his existence beyond earthly life. So far as we understand now there is no possibility that we will find other creatures in the Hereafter. However, it’s one thing to expound according to the theology and philosophy we have studied and quite another for us to comprehend Divine reality–both future and distant–which remains mysterious and difficult to grasp within our limited capabilities.”
Having now listened to the views of a theologian interpreting in his opinion John Paul II’s declaration upon the great spiritual “communion” between men and animals, let us turn again to Monsignor Canciani’s words, the priest who in his genuine concern for animals, had anticipated the Church’s new solidarity with our ‘faithful friends’.
“Yes, the Pope’s words made me very happy” says Monsignor Canciani, who as well as actively assisting the needy in his parish, and helping animals, is also a writer and member of the (Vatican) Council. “The words strengthen even more my love for animals which for years I have welcomed into my church together with the faithful. Just think, after the Pope proclaimed publicly his own love of animals, I received hundreds of phone calls from all over Italy. It was a wonderful experience: I would pick up the receiver and at the other end of the line people would all be complimenting me: “Did you hear, Monsignor? You were right all along! The Pope has said we must all love animals. That they too have souls and belong to God just like men. We do hope now that in our own parish too we will be able to take our animals to Church. It would be wonderful to be able to pray with them beside us.” In fact I was on the phone all day and at last I was able to answer that single question that everyone kept asking. The Pope had made it easy for me when he had affirmed that man must live in solidarity with animals, because to live in community with them is the first principle of existence. And now that the Catholic Church officially is showing herself more attentive to the needs of animals, lots of small memories come crowding in on me, that day after day had impressed themselves upon me and increased my respect for the animals which often save the lives of human beings.”
“I remember for example, the story of an old lady, who living alone in the solitude of her home, to keep loneliness and sadness at bay, had depended strongly on the love and friendship of a little white dog, old like herself and rather worn. One day the old lady, no longer able to care for herself had been forced to enter a Hospice. With her suitcase and the little dog in her arms she presented herself at the door of the Hospice. But of course dogs were not allowed in the Hospice and the old lady became terribly upset. She cried and despaired and would not be parted from her faithful friend who had shared so many years of her life. Finally knowing my love for animals she decided to phone me to ask for help. I rushed immediately over to the Hospice and tried hard to calm her telling her that I would look after her dog and we would both visit her together frequently. However, day after day the situation got worse. Both the dog and the old lady, not able to accept the situation seemed to want only to die. The little dog pined in my study, refusing food and whining. The old lady sat alone in dignified silence while her health visibly deteriorated. So I finally decided to talk to the Director of the Hospice. “Does it seem right to you that two creatures who love each other and are reaching the last few years of their lives should be made to cruelly suffer in this way? Why not, in the name of love can’t we ignore the regulations”. After much heart- searching the Director allowed the little dog to be returned to its owner. I can never forget the expression of pure joy on the woman’s face when she saw her little dog again and knew she could keep him once more. It is written in the Bible that “God exists not only in man but in everything that lives.” And I, seeing the happiness of those two reunited, understood that animals also do have souls, an interior tension with which they interact with God and with men.”
“When did you decide to open the door of your Church to animals?”
“It was a spontaneous decision that sprang from mature reading of the Scriptures which teach that Jesus dying redeemed not only man but the whole of creation: and therefore animals too. I still remember clearly the very first time that, assailed with many doubts, I decided to let a dog enter the Church for a religious ceremony. Two of my older parishioners asked me to celebrate a Mass for their 25th wedding anniversary and rather tentatively the asked whether not only all their family and friends but their dog also, could participate in the celebration as a kind of very affectionate member of the family. ‘Without our dog, it would seem as though our family were not complete and that in fact we would not all really be united for such an important celebration.’
“I thought about this strange proposition for some time before I agreed to their request. And it was a most beautiful and solemn ceremony. It was most moving to see, close to the children, cousins, nephews and nieces of the couple, that quiet gentle animal, waiting patiently with the family. I understood that their dog represented symbolically to the congregation the qualities of friendship and faithfulness of those two people which, among other things, had kept the couple lovingly together.”
AN INFALLIBLE METHOD
“From that experience I opened my Church to animals, and people can enter whenever they wish with their faithful friends, not only during a private arrangement but whenever they come to confess or take part in the Holy Mass. And I now bless animals and their owners twice a year during a special Mass because all creatures have the right to feel loved by God and be near Him.”
“I have also learned to make use of the sensitivity and love animals have for people to solve the most disparate and desperate cases. I have helped back to happy everyday life many cases of drug dependency when the addicts could find no way out of the tunnel, as well as both old and young people who have been through periods of deep depression and feelings of worthlessness unable to find any sense in their lives. I have been able to do this with an infallible method which I now always use: I present myself at their door with a kitten or puppy in my arm together with a small bag of food for the creature. I knock and ask: “Can you do me an enormous favour? I have to leave and won’t be back for a week. There’s no-one who can look after this little animal. Can you possibly help?” The response is usually one of indifference, even distaste and the door is sometimes almost closed in my face. But seeing how insistent I am they agree to do me this small favour. Upon my return the situation is usually completely different. A different person stands before me. No longer apathetic and desperate, because the little animal in its innocence and trusting dependence drew out hidden depths of buried affection. This indicates that man will truly find genuine happiness if he will learn to trust again in the love and companionship of animals.”
(*Note: Douai Version; Ps 104 in the Authorised Version) (**’meat’ in the Bible means ‘food’ not the flesh of animals or man which when referred to is called ‘flesh’)