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How St. Hubert’s encounter with a deer inspired Justice Scalia’s hunting friends

People arrive for the funeral for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The exclusive hunting society that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was hanging out with when he died last weekend wore velvet emerald robes stitched with the words “Deum Diligite Animalia Diligentes,” or  “Honoring God by honoring His creatures.”

That appears to refer to the story of the society’s namesake, St. Hubert, who is the Catholic patron saint of hunting, fishing, trapping, rabies victims and – depending on the source you consult – dog trainers, mathematicians and opticians.

Justice Scalia spent his last hours with this members of this secretive society of elite hunters

But before he became a saint, Hubert was said to be just a Middle Ages playboy who loved hunting but cared not a whit about churchgoing and apparently not very much about his prey. The story of his ascendance involves a conversion on both counts, and it has informed an argument many hunters make today: that they love animals and that hunting can be done without cruelty.

Here’s how most versions of the St. Hubert tale go: He was born into a noble family in 656, and his wife died in childbirth. Bereft, he withdrew to the forest to devote himself to hunting. On one Good Friday morning, as the faithful converged on churches, Hubert pursued a mighty stag.

Suddenly, the animal turned to him. Hubert saw a crucifix between its antlers and heard a voice telling him to turn to the Lord or soon go to Hell. (If you spend more time in a bar than in church, you might still be familiar with this story: It’s behind the image on the label of those green Jägermeister bottles.)

Hubert accepted God, and, according to some accounts, listened to a mini-lecture from the deer on hunting do’s and don’ts: Only shoot when a quick kill was definite; kill only those past prime breeding age; never hunt a doe with fawns.

And, crucially to the slogan of Scalia’s hunting society, the International Order of St. Hubertus, he was told to respect animals as God’s creatures. Many animal lovers and animal rights groups – some of which viewed Scalia as particularly anti-animal – reject that killing and honoring animals can go hand-in-hand, of course. But the idea underpins the ethics many hunting groups say they ascribe to.

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One well-known American Jesuit priest, Mitch Pacwa, penned hunting prayers to be recited in honor of St. Hubert. Here’s one titled “Prayer for successful hunt”:

Lord, I pray that I may take down the game in as painless a way as possible. May I recognize my limits and take the shots I know I can make, not taking a shot that risks maiming or wounding an animal unnecessarily.

Hubert became an evangelizer known for brave ventures into the Ardennes forest of Belgium, where he would convert pagans who worshiped idols. He later became the bishop of Liege, and he was known for possessing a golden key – given to him when he was visited by St. Peter on a trip to Rome – that could cure rabies. For centuries after Hubert’s death, Europeans relied on nail- or cross-shaped pieces of metal that were known as St. Hubert’s keys to cure rabies. Priests would use them to prick a sufferer’s forehead, then heat the key and hold it to the animal bite. (Doubters of miracles have noted that this probably cauterized the wound, possibly killing the rabies virus.)

These days, St. Hubert’s Day is celebrated on Nov. 3 – at the start of the hunting season – with a special Mass and celebrations in countries including Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Hunters, their dogs and horses get a blessing; then they head out for a hunt.

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