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UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: DO ANIMALS HAVE AFTERLIFE OR AT LEAST A SPIRITUAL ASPECT?
Do animals have an afterlife? Or at least, is there a supernatural aspect to them?
Years ago an elderly woman we knew had a dream of her pet cockatiel fluttering into her bedroom as if to say good bye and found the bird dead in the morning.
Dogs are known to howl when their masters pass on -- even if it is miles away.
At Assisi, where the great animal lover St. Francis lived, doves congregate oddly on the arms of his statue.
When the Blessed Mother has come in apparition, flocks of birds have been known to turn unnaturally silent.
And so author Susi Pittman, a devout Catholic who works with animal organizations, in Florida, asks, "Animals in Heaven? Catholics Want to Know!" -- a book that tackles the question from a standpoint that is strictly obedient to the teachings of Catholicism.
Despite common misconceptions, the Church has not decided on the answer to that question.
We do know that popes have had an affection for creatures. John Paul II said that animals possess the "spark of God," and Pope Benedict XVI loves cats so much that when he was Cardinal "he nursed the injured and sick ones, feeding many of the cats that took up residence close to where he lived," writes Susi. "There was a time when so many cats followed him to the Vatican that a Swiss guard was heard to remark that he thought the cats were 'laying siege to the Holy See.'"
What the Church does teach is that animals are here to serve man and are to be treated with respect and kindness. "[God] surrounds them with His providential care," says the Catechism (2416). "By their mere existence they bless Him and give Him glory." Exploitation is forbidden.
"No animal can be more important than a human soul, nor should we obsess unnecessarily over our lesser brethren in the animal world," Pittman writes. "But animals are a gift, and we should respect them and all Creation with the dignity and value given them by God."
This is an important book at a time when animals are crammed into food mills, forced out of their habitats, slain unnecessarily (for sport), and in many cases -- in a startling number of cases -- threatened with extinction.
It is hard to imagine that God created a species in order for us to destroy it.
According to the Little Flowers of St. Francis: "One day, it is recalled, a youth had taken many turtle-doves, and as he was carrying them to sell them. St. Francis, who ever had singular compassion for gentle creatures, chanced to meet him, and looking upon those turtle-doves with compassionate eye, said to the youth: 'Good youth, I pray thee give them to me, that birds so gentle, which in the Scriptures are likened unto chaste and humble and faithful souls, come not into the hands of cruel men who would slay them.'" Francis then tamed the doves.
"We must remember, though, that animals are what they are," writes the author. "They are not human. All animals were created according to God's own unique design and are hardwired differently in their relationship with the Creator than is humankind."
But what about that spiritual aspect?
"Animals live among us with usual, unusual, and even inspiring behaviors that suggest an undercurrent of some unseen power that sustains and dignifies their existence," she notes. "God has considerations for all Creation!"
At the Blessed Mother's home in Ephesus, Turkey, where she lived her last years with Saint John, birds abound to such an extent that the area is known as the "Mountain of Nightingales."
Bees were supernaturally connected to Saint Rita. St. Anthony of Padua was said once to have caused a multitude of fish to congregate (listening to him speak). St. Francis bargained with a wolf, while another St. Francis -- Xavier -- was said to have lost a Crucifix while trying to quell the wind aboard a ship bound for Baranura. Legend has it that a huge crab rose from the water clutching it.
Myths? Legends? There are those who have claimed to see apparitions of deceased animals. There is the donkey that spoke in Scripture. We know of Saint Benedict's relationship with a raven.
During near-death experiences, many are those who insist that they saw magnificent animals on the "other side."
For your discernment.
"Adults and children alike have described seeing family pets, petting and embracing pets, and even seeing other animals and created things, such as flowers, trees, birds, and mountains [during brushes with death]," notes Susi, who resides with 14 pets she has rescued. "They hear incredible music and see colors that our human eyes could not bear to see because of the brilliance and diffusive nature of the glorified natural."
"The saints who have received private revelations from Mary, Mother of Jesus, tell us that on occasion, the Blessed Mother is seen with a bird or birds about her," adds Pittman. "I have had personal experiences at the death of some of my animals that speak of the miraculous, but I hold those privately and adhere to what the Church teaches me to be the truth."
At Betania, in Venezuela -- an apparition site declared as "sacred ground" by the bishop -- a blue butterfly flitted from a grotto at the moment of apparitions.
It is an area of controversy. No one doubts the primacy of man -- who is made in God's image. But are animals just "things" -- of no more consequence than a stone?
Or was the chasm between man and creatures created during the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden?
One day, will lion lay next to the lamb? [See today's Mass reading.]
In the afterlife, are there the creatures mentioned in Revelation?
"Some of our Catholic clergy are quick to discount Heaven for animals," argues Susi. "It is confusing, to say the least, when Catholic priests from around the world don't always match up with their theology. The faithful are told -- sometimes tragically -- that 'we don't believe in that!' or 'that subject is absolutely trivial.' This attitude shows total disregard for those caring and concerned souls who answer the Creation stewardship calling from God. It takes the importance of God's Plan for the ultimate perfecting of all Creation and tosses it aside!"
Again: for your consideration.
The guide is the Catechism.
We'll leave it at Scripture:
"And I heard every creature in Heaven and on earth and under the sea and in the sea, and all therein, saying, 'To Him Who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!'" (Revelation 5:13).
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