Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day and St. Valentine's Days. Both have
become commercial affairs with little meaning beyond green beer and
valentines. Their value is relegated to extra money for retail merchants.
I am not a Catholic, but I propose that we should consider honoring St.
Hubert, the patron saint of hunting, in celebrations in the U.S. Crass
commercialization could happen to St. Hubert's Day as well, but I am willing to
take the chance.
The experience of hunting in the U.S. today seems secular and economic to
most. That's unfortunate because for most hunters the hunt is a deeply
ethical experience. Even more important, the hunt becomes more vulnerable
to suspicion and criticism by not showing how hunting is closely tied to
In France and Belgium each fall, special ceremonies and festivities are
held to honor St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunting. The epicenter of
his veneration is the town of St. Hubert, Belgium, not far from the
Ardennes forest. The annual colorful festivities draw crowds of 10,000 or
more. Elsewhere in Europe schools are closed on St. Hubert's Day, November
3, as churches conduct the Mass of Saint Hubert, where hunters, their dogs
and falcons are brought into the church for blessings.
Hunting ceremonies and rituals in North America are usually associated
with Indians and Eskimos. A few churches in the Midwest and Rockies hold a
"Hunter's Mass" on the eve of the hunting season, but in general the ethics
and spirituality of modern hunting are pretty much left up to individuals.
The tradition of St. Hubert offers a way to make a strong connection
between hunting, religion and ethics. Many, perhaps most, hunters, let
alone the general public, have not heard of St. Hubert. So here's some background.
The Story of Saint Hubert
Hubert, the eldest son of Bertrans, Duke of Aquitaine, was born in 638 A.D.
He became a prince in the House of Aquitaine in France. Hubert enjoyed the
"good life" of nobility, but most of all he loved hunting. Legend has it
that one Good Friday, when he should have been in church, Hubert galloped
off on horseback to hunt deer. His hounds cornered a large stag. As Hubert
approached, suddenly he had a vision of a glowing crucifix appearing over
the deer's head. A voice spoke to him: "Hubert, unless thou turnest to the
Lord, and leadest a holy life, thou shalt quickly go to hell."
Hubert climbed down off his horse, begging forgiveness. The voice
instructed him to seek guidance from Lambert, Bishop of Maastrichcht. Not
long after seeking out the Bishop, Hubert's wife died. He soon entered the
Abbey of Staveleot and became a priest.
Lambrecht advised Hubert to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 705 A.D. During
Hubert's absence, Lambert was murdered. Hubert was selected by the Pope to
succeed his mentor as Bishop. Later Hubert built St. Peter's Cathedral in
Liege, Belgium, on the spot where Lambert had died, and he in turn became
the patron of the city.
Hubert applied his passion to his faith, establishing Christianity in
large sections of the Ardennes forest of Belgium, stretching from Meuse to
the Rhine. He preached to many of the hunters of the forest and is said to
have hunted and kept dogs.
Rabies was a problem for those who owned dogs,
but Hubert is said to not only have been protected from the deadly disease,
but to have been blessed with miraculous powers to heal rabies, aided by a
special white and gold silk stole that he said was given to him by the
Blessed Virgin Mary. He also had a golden key, which was reputed to be a
Hubert died quietly on May 30, 727 A.D. with the words "Our father, who art
in heaven..." on his lips. In 1744 he was canonized as a saint: the patron
saint of hunting and butchers.
First buried in Luttich, Hubert's body was later moved to the Andain
monastery in the Ardennes, which today is known as St. Hubert's Abbey. The
location of the abbey, and the Belgian town of Saint Hubert, is supposed to
be close to where Hubert saw the stag with the cross between his antlers.
Each November 3, Saint Hubert's Day, all across France, Luxembourg and
Belgium, thousands of people attend special masses and celebrations to
honor Saint Hubert. During these festivities special blessings are said for
the safety and success of hunters and the health of their animals dogs
are blessed for protection from diseases like rabies and special
religious music written for hunting horns is performed ("Grande Mess de
Saint Hubert"). In certain parts of Europe the deer hunting season is
suspended to honor St. Hubert.
The physical center of devotion to Saint Hubert today remains the town of
Saint Hubert in Belgium, where thousands of people gather every November 3.
To many European hunters, making the pilgrimage to the town on Saint
Hubert's Day is like a Muslim making a pilgrimage to Mecca, a Jew praying
at the Wailing Wall or a Christian visiting Jerusalem on Easter.
St. Hubert's Day in the US?
The potential for St. Hubert's festivities on this side of the Atlantic can be seen at Cap St. Ignace,
Quebec. When the Mass of St. Hubert is said in the local church, hunters dressed in hunting clothes come into the church for a blessing. They also
bring their dogs and guns to be blessed. In fact, the procession enters and
exits the church under an archway of guns held aloft by hunters wearing
camouflage and orange. Such pagentry tackles two touchy subjects hunting and guns and sanctions both.
Holding hunting festivities associated with churches makes a public
statement about support for hunting, and hunting needs all the support it
can get. To many non-hunters who live their lives in cities deprived of
contact with nature, hunting seems like an archaic blood ritual and drunken
orgy. Hunting stories once helped educate people about the ethics and
values of hunting. Hunting stories today are told almost entirely for
hunters. Movies and television, seldom have anything positive to say about
hunting. One reason why some people oppose hunting is that they know little
or nothing about it.
The modern hunter no longer needs to hunt for food to survive, but the
motivation to hunt is no less important. For most modern hunters, the hunt
is more of a ritual to conserve the soul rather than putting meat in the
freezer or antlers on the wall. We need social customs to acknowledge the
ethics and spirituality of hunting. In many parts of the world, honoring
St. Hubert strengthens the image and ethical elements of hunting. Perhaps
it is time for the US to honor St. Hubert as well.
James Swan is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." The story of St. Hubert's Day with photos of celebrations in Europe and
Canada can be found Swan's book "The Sacred Art of Hunting," Willow Creek Press, 2000. To purchase a copy visit his website.