Walking up the stairs of the slightly dilapidated S. Eusebio church on the corner of Piazza Vittorio it is clear that this will be nothing like a regular mass. Highly uniformed members of the Corazzieri and Forestali corps stand guard on horseback in the small square and people walk purposefully with their dogs and cats into the church.
The atmosphere inside is lively and akin to that of New Years Eve, when long-time non-practicing Christians and non-religious people are suddenly inspired to go to church, and the aisles are as packed as the pews. The church is positively teeming with normally inappropriate sounds: dogs yapping and growling, birds chirping and tweeting, hamsters and rabbits furrowing in their cages and owners chatting blithely despite the traditional rites of mass taking place only feet away. Only the many cats seem to be keeping almost haughtily silent.
It is the Sunday before St Anthony Abbots official feast day on 17 January, and due to rather prosaic traffic restrictions the rest of the week, it is also the day the Church has chosen to hold the blessing of the animals. The patron saint of animals, St Anthony Abbot is often pictured with a pig (legend has it that he cured a sick one, which then became his faithful companion). Though the blessing has ancient roots (work animals such as livestock and horses were brought to church as owners sought divine protection for creatures on whom their livelihood depended), the event is once again exceedingly popular; the oxen and donkeys have, however, been replaced by pampered domestic animals.
The priest struggles to make himself heard above the din as he starts his sermon.
People eye up each others animals with curiosity and diffidence, much like proud new parents might size up other peoples offspring. Doesnt he like being held in your arms? asks one keen animal-lover of a young dog-owner. The owner says no so the animal-lover takes the dog into her own as if to prove a point. Later a man is universally tut-tutted as his dog, a lively young Labrador who is wearing one of those collars that tightens as the dog pulls, almost chokes in his excitement. Comments are made about how such collars should not be allowed and the owner shame-facedly walks away.
After the Eucharist everyone files to the square outside and the priest stands on the steps of the church. He asks for quiet, though he is good-humoured enough to say that he does not expect the same from the animals. He recites a collective blessing and people clutch their pets. One woman wraps herself tightly around her Boxer dog. She finally opens her eyes many minutes later to make a portentous sign of the cross. As the priest comes into the square to hand out individual blessings, the woman with the boxer dog is first in line.