On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.
Anyone who has ever owned a pet understands Jill Shaffer's deep sentiments for her cat, Della.
Shaffer got Della just before her divorce 14 years ago, and her "flabby tabby" kept her company through stretches of loneliness. When Shaffer was sick, Della would climb onto the bed, comforting her owner with warm purrs.
So when Della died two weeks ago, Shaffer went into grieving. The night Della was returned from the crematorium, Shaffer invited several friends to her home in Rockville to lament Della's death. She called it "sitting shiva," in the Jewish tradition of gathering to mourn a loved one and comfort the survivors.
"We had a very spiritual ceremony," said Shaffer, a Christian who plans to have her brother, an ordained minister, officiate this weekend at a formal ceremony honoring Della's life. "We ordered pizza and sat around and talked about what a big, wonderful cat she was."
Not long ago, Shaffer's decision to mark her cat's passing with a religious ceremony would have been viewed as extreme. Few people of faith talked about the spiritual role animals played in their lives. Now, there is a small but growing movement to acknowledge the spirituality of animals with religious ceremonies.
Many denominations have adopted a long tradition in Catholic churches of annual services to bless animals, usually in early October to coincide with the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. An increasing number of clergy from all faiths are willing to officiate at funerals for pets owned by members of their congregations. The American Academy of Religion has formed a working group of scholars to focus on issues relating to animals and religion.
"People want permission to care about nonhumans," said Paul Waldau, the group's chairman and a professor at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University. "Our society has not provided a lot of avenues for it."
Some people believe that animals have souls every bit as much as humans do and are destined to go to heaven when they die.
"They are sinless," said Mary Buddemeyer Porter, author of the book "Will I See Fido in Heaven?"
"Go back to Genesis. It was man that sinned and condemned the world. During Jesus' time, and on through almost 200 years ago, it was accepted that animals went to heaven."
Most mainstream religions view animals as creatures of God, but they differentiate between animals and humans when it comes to questions of soul and spirituality.
The Catholic Church, for example, teaches that animals have a vegetative soul, not a rational soul, said Kevin Treston, a friar at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington. The official Catholic position is that without rationality, animals cannot go to heaven. And that is sometimes difficult for Catholic dog lovers to understand.
"People say, 'My puppy loves me,' " Treston said. "But we say it's not a rational decision. Pets are domesticated and stick with the person who feeds them and cares for them."
For the annual Blessing of the Animals, which will be Oct. 2 this year, Treston often visits a Hyattsville animal clinic to sprinkle holy water on them as well as presiding over the ritual at the church. He said he blesses them because they are beloved companions of people.
"St. Francis had the idea that animals are our brothers and sisters, and through them we see the goodness of God," said Treston, who has blessed birds, lizards and hamsters as well as dogs and cats. "Their creation shows that God has passed by the way, like footprints in the snow."
Pattie Ames has been bringing her beagle, Ghany, to the Blessing of the Animals at St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington since its inception in 1999. About 75 to 100 parishioners attend the outdoor ceremony, with their pets on leashes or in crates.
"It's very special to me," she said. "I believe God created everything, and she's part of God's creation."
As director of children's ministries for the church, Ames also has presided over pet funerals. She often says a prayer from a book, "Animal Rites," that she keeps in her office and uses the funerals to help children understand death as a part of the cycle of life.
Animals have deep historical roots in religion. From the Middle Ages until the 19th century, when most people lived in rural areas, animals were routinely blessed at harvest festivals. It was only in the 19th century, when more people began moving to cities and away from nature, that animal blessings started falling out of favor.
Many noted theologians put animals in heaven, including Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Scholars say contemporary attitudes began to shift with the animal protection movement and the wide interest in vegetarianism.
"Any time an animal is honored, any time a human-animal relationship is honored, it causes people to think about the significance of all animals beyond just the ones we hold dear," said Stephen Webb, professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College in Indiana and a member of the academy's group on animals.
Webb said the phenomenon is growing from the bottom up, as people of faith ask their religious leaders to preside at pet funerals. After initially being flummoxed, some ministers have begun to view it as a pastoral duty.
"People used to have small, informal funerals in their back yards," he said. "Now they're asking pastors to be there. They expect clergy to meet their needs, to be in tune with their own practices."
Lee Fangmeyer, a priest at St. Francis of Assisi Church in the Derwood section of Montgomery County, said he would consider saying a prayer for a departed pet but would balk at anything more formal.
"I wouldn't say a Mass for them. That's intended for the soul," said Fangmeyer, who has blessed dogs, cats, horses, snakes and fish at the church's annual Blessing of the Animals. "The animals don't need to be forgiven."
Clergy are no longer an unusual sight at pet cemeteries.
"I've had every type of clergy represented out here except a Buddhist monk," said Glenn Lane, director of Noah's Ark Pet Cemetery in the Falls Church section of Fairfax County. "I've had a preacher come for a service for a ferret. I've had a Muslim family who brought an imam in. He wanted to make sure the pet was facing east when he buried it."
Harold White, the senior Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University, has presided over several funerals for pets, including four of his own cats.
"The important thing is to bring solace to people who have suffered a loss," said White, who wings it with prayers of his own creation, because there is no set ceremony in Judaism for the burial of an animal. "I believe an animal who lived with dignity in the home should be buried with dignity."
But many religious leaders do not share his conviction. Most of the ceremonies White has performed have been for pet owners whose own clergy refused to officiate.
"I'm a pet lover," White said. "I think the clergy who would tend to officiate would be clergy who own pets."