Clergy Cats

An exclusive look into the lives of religious leaders and their feline companions.

History has shown that there’s always been strong bonds between cats and religious leaders. They’ve been worshiped by ancient civilizations and over centuries been the companions to numerous spiritual figures and the subject of many sacred legends and fables. Prophet Mohammad, the founder of Islam was an acknowledged cat lover and so was Confucius, the founder of Confucian religion. Numerous popes have had feline consorts too. However, recently, when Pope Benedict XVI let the cat out of the bag and confessed that he adored felines, his statement had a ripple effect around the world prompting other current religious principals to publicly re-affirm their furry affection.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, California lives in an apartment adjacent to Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral with two silver tabbies named after the archangels Gabriel and Raphael.

On first impression, the interior with its dark wood paneling, stately wingback chairs and rich fabrics appears straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest magazine. But closer inspection reveals his Eminence’s favorite chair has been shredded by his mischievous felines and in fact is covered in cat hair…

While the curious Gabriel hovered at his feet, Raphael was nowhere in sight. Keen to introduce both cats, the Cardinal led a search down the passageway to discover the second cat snoozing on a magnificent pale silk bedspread in the master bedroom. Next minute his Eminence was down on his hands and knees searching for his valuable Cardinal’s ring, which he retrieved from under the bed.

“That’s Gabriel at work again,” he explained with a broad smile. “He thinks it’s a cat toy and constantly takes it off the dresser for some fun and games.”

To say that the Cardinal Mahony is a cat lover is an understatement. He is smitten. Further evidence is the basket of the very latest cat toys in his office and the kitty condo alongside his desk where his adored felines hang out when he works.

“Cats are the most wonderful companions and they make perfect pets for clergymen because their presence is very soothing. When I’m working on something that takes a lot of concentration, they provide a wonderful relaxing diversion. I think they are very spiritual creatures and have a certain mystique about them. I never cease to be amused by their wonderful sense of adventure.”

While the Roman Catholic Church, as a global organization, has never taken a stance on animal rights issues, Mahony reflects, “All animals are given to use as part of God’s creation for enjoyment and companionship.”

The Cardinal fondly remembers his first cat, an orange tabby named Rusty that he and his brother adopted from a local pound and paid 50 cents to acquire. He was 24 years old when he passed away from old age.

Of course Gabriel and Raphael are spoilt rotten. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in May 2005, Cardinal Mahony was in Rome and came back with special presents for his felines, little miniature cardinal hats from a store called Barbiconi, which specializes in clergy robes and accessories.

Rabbi Yonassan Gershom lives on a farm in Sandstone, a tiny dot-on-the-map town in Minnesota with his wife Caryl and a veritable Noah’s ark of animals including eleven cats.

He points out that while domestic cats are not mentioned anywhere in the Tanach (Old Testament), there are numerous references to lions and leopards.

“The reason for this omission is probably because the Egyptians worshipped cats, which Jews regarded as idolatry. However, under Jewish law, animals have some of the same rights as humans do. They must rest on the Sabbath, as humans do, and Jews are required to feed their pets before feeding themselves.”

Growing up, Rabbi Gershom says he always wanted a cat but his mother was wary. So he was overjoyed when a friend gave him a kitten as a wedding present in the early Eighties.

“We named her Simchah which means celebration in Hebrew. Not long after we adopted a second cat to keep her company and named him Koshka, which means ‘cat’ in Russian. There’s no question that I have a very strong spiritual connection to felines. They are very intuitive creatures. We found a stray on the farm we named Sapphire. She’s definitely my cat and follows me everywhere and sleeps on my bed. However, when my grandson comes to visit she immediately goes off to ‘baby-sit” him and will only look at me again once he’s left.

The Rabbi, who has authored several books on reincarnation, firmly believes that one of the stray cats he found on his farm Simchah reincarnated.

“She died several years ago after someone kicked her and broke her jaw. She definitely came back to me in a new body.”

Father Chuck Girardeau Associate Rector at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta Georgia has a penchant for orange tabbies and the incumbent orange cat in the Girardeau household is named Ivan after a former church treasurer “who had a delightful personality and a great sense of humor.”

“I adore cats and I’ve shed many a tear into a cat’s fur. They’re so attuned to life’s ups and downs and are very supportive in those moments when you don’t want to be alone.

“We have three cats, but Ivan is the clown. He’s always doing little things that make us smile. For instance, he learned to turn wall light switches on or off. We can be sitting in the living room and suddenly the lights go out! He also delights us with his love of various foods. He demands to have his bite of a banana someone might be eating. And he will do just about anything to get a piece of a fresh tomato that is being prepared for a meal.

“But having said this, his love and affection is genuine and goes well beyond cupboard love!

“Cats don’t feature in any Episcopal Church doctrine that but there’s a wonderful children’s story that I often tell the children at Sunday school about a marmalade tabby at the nativity, whose purr put a cranky baby Jesus to sleep. So Mary blessed him and that is why tabbies all have ‘M’s on their foreheads…” (Another legend claims the Prophet Mohammed created the “M” marking on the forehead of the tabby cat when he rested his hand on the brow of his favorite cat named Muezza).

When Bradley, the church cat at the Church of the Advent in Boston, Massachusetts passed away, Father Allan Warren held a special memorial service for him and allowed the children in the congregation to gather round when his ashes were buried in the church garden.

“Everybody loved him,” explains Father Warren. “We needed to mark his passing and simultaneously I used the opportunity to teach the younger congregants about death.”

Two cats named Jake and Jeoffrey now live at the church while at the rectory, Father Warren plays servant to a willful calico named Skippergee and a plump Scottish Fold named The Owl.

“I never cease to be amazed by the sheer delight in creation that you see in cats. There’s a way in which they make human beings more human. One might say they’re the original innocence,” says Father Warren. “Personally, my life would be very different without them. I’ve been in meetings and someone in the room is being very pompous. Then one of the cats arrives and that person is brought down a notch.

“On one occasion, when one of my congregants was under considerable stress and was have difficulty speaking, one of my cats jumped up in her lap and that broke the ice. She was able to spill her heart out after that.

“As a man of God, my cats have definitely taught me not to take myself too seriously. We can all learn from the way they delight in the world around them and receive such pleasure from little things such as a grasshopper. Besides, they can be really silly. And we all need to laugh.”

 

This article is from Cat Fancy Magazine