As I'm standing in an English churchyard having my pussy blessed by an Catholic priest, something very disturbing happens. I look up at Father Clive Hillman—who is young and tall and has kind eyes—and an overwhelming urge comes over me. Lifelong atheist that I am, I want Father Clive to bless me. Could it be that I'm kind of hot for Father Clive?
Earlier that morning I'd boarded a train with Ludo, a four-year old white tabby, his owner Lisa, and Bekky, our photographer. Did you know that white cats are commonly born deaf? Luckily, Ludo—who radiates animosity throughout our journey—is blessed with hearing in both ears. This is a good thing. If we're going to impose religion on a cat, it's only fair that he hears what's going on.
As the train winds through deepest suburbia—we're en route to Leigh-on-Sea, an estuary town in the Essex countryside—we poke treats into Ludo's carrier. Ludo is pissed to be up this early and no amount of peace offerings is going to change that. He ignores us as studiously as a TSA agent waving a family of white Protestants through an immigration checkpoint.
Whatever: I'm doing this cat a favor. Cats are Satanic! I'm literally saving Ludo from kitty hellfire. Here's a theological certainty: Cats do not belong in church. While pagan religions were generally pro-cat, when Christianity took root in Europe cats came to be associated—alongside other fun things, like premarital sex—with the devil, and specifically, witches. And as any basic bitch knows, witches and cat ears are an iconic Halloween outfit pairing. However, as congregation numbers fall and cats are increasingly recognized as mostly non-Satanic household pets, a rapprochement between church and cat seems possible.
And for one day only, we've found a church willing to let sleeping cats lie. Earlier in the week, Broadly heard that St Clemens, a parish church in Leigh-on-Sea was holding a Blessing of the Cats. Father Neil Dalley, Father Clive's colleague, explained on email: "We haven't done the Blessing of Cats before but last year on the feast day of St Roch, patron saint of dogs, we had a dog blessing, and not surprisingly some of our cat owners felt that this was a bit exclusive."
Anyway, I haven't actually been to church since I ended up doing bumps in a leaky vestibule during a pretty dire Halloween fundraiser, so I was looking for an opportunity to redeem myself. I promptly book train tickets to Leigh and began my search for a suitable cat.
Turns out, it's more difficult than you'd think to persuade people to lend you their cats! People are uncommonly attached to their cats! I experience the tang of rejection everywhere I turn. "Need ur cat," I message one cat-owning friend. She leaves the message on "read". Plaintive and increasingly deranged tweets go unanswered. Chat windows are closed without reply. Cat-owning colleagues stop making eye contact with me in the office.
Eventually Lisa, a VICE colleague, comes through—on the condition she accompanies us on our unlikely pilgrimage. Out of the train station, I bump Ludo in the carrier up a winding hill path. On our right, the Thames estuary glints in the soft morning sunlight. Lisa looks over concernedly as Ludo's carrier jolts violently against my hip. "Is he scared?" I ask. "Well, yeah," Lisa responds. "But it's all in the name of journalism. People need to know!" she cackles as we trudge uphill.
We arrive at St Clemens, a parish church in Leigh Old Town, shortly before the service begins. I introduce myself to Father Clive, who will be officiating the blessing. Father Clive wants us to know that he is doing today's cat blessing for the benefit of the parishioners, and not because he's weird about cats or whatever.
"We're just acknowledging that cats are a blessing to their owners," Father Clive explains gently as Ludo attempts to claw a pew through his carrier. "Christian theology teaches that we can see the handiwork of God's love in all the world." But aren't cats Satanic? I ask.
Father Clive suppresses a flicker of irritation like the media-trained boss he is. "I think," he ventures tentatively, "after the Reformation, cats became associated with witchcraft. But the Church has always seen all of God's animals as being blessed."
What about snakes? I push. After all, snakes do a lot of evil stuff at the beginning of the Bible. "I would bless a snake," Father Clive reluctantly confirms.
Anyway, Ludo isn't the only creature in God's creation wishing they were softly farting back in their bed. As I'm chatting to Father Clive, I remember an important fact—I'm madly uncomfortable in churches! I hate them! And my attempts at ice-breaking small talk with the ladies manning the church tea stand go down as well as an "End Forced Motherhood" T-shirt at a first communion.
"Would you like sugar in your tea?" I'm asked good-naturedly by one of the ladies. "HA HA HA," I bluster, too loudly. "Who puts sugar in their tea? That's an abomination!"
The previously good-natured ladies fix me with distinctly cooler stares.
"Probably best not to use the word 'abomination' in here," Father Clive observes.
Inside the church, I get chatting to 41-year-old Richard Bennett, who's dressed entirely in green—complete with novelty tankard around his neck—in honor of St Patrick's Day. With him is black housecat Miss Kitty, who strains at her multi-coloured lead with such intensity I can only conclude she's an atheist cat. Bennett, I learn, is a serious cat fan: so much so that he has two separate tattoos of Catwoman on his upper arm.
"In 2015, I went to a sci-fi convention," he explains, "and there as this woman outside dressed as Catwoman from [1992 Tim Burton-directed] Batman Returns. And I was, like, 'Oh my god.'"
He breaks off and offers to show me his tattoos. "I'd love to see them!" I respond. "Maybe after the blessing?" Right on time, Father Clive signals for us to head outside, and we troop out dutifully. (We're going to be blessing the cats in the churchyard, under an enormous crucifix that faces the estuary. If you're going to bless a cat, why not do it somewhere picturesque?)
Outside, the cats await their blessing. Miss Kitty and Ludo are joined by two pedigree felines—Misses and Jan, both Persian cats. "I don't know if they're religious cats," says their owner Dennis Hobart. This isn't their first church blessing: Misses and Jan were blessed, alongside their relative Old Boy—who's since passed away—in a similar service last year. Hobart hopes that as Old Boy was blessed before he died, he's now looking down on us from kitty heaven.
"I tell my fiancé, every time it rains, that's his drooling tongue," Hobart says. "He was 19, so his tongue stuck out of his face—kind of like [American celebrity cat] Lil Bub."
Father Clive kneels in front of Misses and Jan (they remain in their carriers) and murmurs a blessing. It's an impossibly fresh, beautiful morning. We are somber, respectful. Then it's my turn. Gingerly, I take Ludo out of his carrier while Lisa winces (I have a history of dropping animals, but it's usually their fault). I cradle Ludo in my arms, enjoying the cool churchyard breeze. Father Clive stands close to me. I enjoy that too.
"May the Lord bless and keep you, may the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace," Father Clive intones. Wanting to be respectful of the moment, I stifle the urge to laugh. Surreally, we stand—a blessed trio, in front of the crucifix—Father Clive, me, and my pussy, which he grasps firmly in both hands.
Then it's time to bless Miss Kitty (as it's Bennett's birthday, we throw in a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for good measure). "Don't worry," Bennett soothes Miss Kitty in anticipation of her blessing. "Nothing to worry about. Daddy's here."
Walking away, I'm suddenly struck by an unshakeable thought. What about all the other cats in God's creation? Will they endure the limbless torments of eternal purgatory, like those god-forsaken babies who pass before receiving their first sacrament? Will unblessed cats be excluded from the enormous balls of yarn that await them in kitty heaven? I run back to check in with Father Clive.
OK, so: While it's okay for unbaptized children to float in eternal hellfire, cats apparently get a free pass. "Because God created all things, and God brings all things together at the end of time, I think all things are subsumed into God," he responds.
If you think Father Clive is talking in riddles, you'd be right—we're talking to a practitioner of established religion here, people! Literally none of it makes any sense.
Just to be sure, I ask him again: Will unblessed cats be okay come the day of judgement?
"I think cats will be all right," he responds. "I think all that that is God is made all right in the end."
Sadly, Father Clive won't tell me if there's a specific cat heaven. Seriously, this dude is as shaky on the specifics as Betsy DeVos testifying before a congressional hearing. "God gathers everything up into God," he responds firmly, "but anything beyond that is just speculation.
As we're leaving, I sense a state of calm—or is it the presence of God?—settling over Ludo. Not so much for Miss Kitty, however—when Bennett hands me her leash to show me his Catwoman tattoos, she literally starts clawing the church walls in a vainglorious bid for freedom.
No bother: Like humans, religion isn't suited for all cats, something Father Clive knows only too well. "No two cats are the same," he says obscurely.
"Just like potatoes."