MUMBAI, India – For over 20 years, Father Joseph D’Souza has been blessing pets at his parish in India in honor of Saint Francis.

Although the feast of St. Francis is observed on Oct. 4, D’Souza held his annual blessing ceremony on Oct. 10, the following Sunday, so more people could attend the event at St John the Evangelist Church in Mumbai.

The blessing is open to people of all faiths, and D’Souza said animals “broke all religious barriers.”

This year, 22 pets were blessed from 12 Catholic families and 10 non-Christian families.

It was the first blessing since India ended its COVID-19 lockdown – the 2020 edition had to be cancelled.

India has suffered greatly during the pandemic, with over 34 million cases and 4.5 million deaths. Mumbai was locked down in March 2020 with the rest of India, but also experienced another lockdown earlier this year during the pandemic’s second wave.

“Pets helped many people cope with the mental stress of being locked down during the coronavirus pandemic. During the lockdown, as people remained stuck at home, our loyal pets provided the companionship,” D’Souza said.

“These pets are beautiful creature of God and provided us the gift to be in contact with, to touch, another living creature and also have the loving attention of another living creature on us,” the priest explained.

“Truly, our pets provided the emotional support we needed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

“A few pet owners who brought their pets for Blessing shared with me that their beloved pet helped them reduce anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the social distancing, their pets helped make them feel comfortable and provided them with emotional support, when they were struggling with stress and feeling overwhelmed,” he told Crux.

“Animals give so much to us but they expect nothing back in return,” the priest said.