Lucy Note: This week a promotional item came across my desk at the perfect time. With the circus in town, how wonderful – and surprising – it is to learn that faith is their "safety net." Read more in the inspirational column “Faith Under the Big Top” by Mark Edwards.
“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, children of all ages” is the familiar opening of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
What isn’t so well-known is that long before the ringmaster steps into the spotlight to speak those words and begin the show, countless hours of preparation and rehearsal are constantly invested by the more than 300 individuals on the “blue tour” to make the program appear perfect and seamless in every detail.
There is also an important unseen element within the circus which comes into play many times during a performance, on a very personal basis – as an aerialist spins through the air for a few seconds without any support; when an animal trainer hears the enclosure door close behind him and a group of lions; or as clowns go into their act, hoping their timing and sense of humor won’t fail. Behind the performances and many jobs is a tight-knit community whose members share an itinerant lifestyle, and are especially dependent on each other for basic support and encouragement, but even more so for higher values of faith and hope. For 21 years, Father Jerry Hogan has served as circus chaplain, appointed by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops in Washington, D.C. Hogan counsels, comforts and reassures his “flock” of not only the 65 percent who are Catholic, but also anyone who needs a reliable confidant, a strong shoulder, and at times, a listening ear.
Hogan hears many stories in a variety of unique settings. One of his most memorable was in Raleigh, N.C., and started out in the dining car of the train. Hogan was getting a cup of coffee when one of the concessions workers approached him and indicated he would like to go to confession between shows.
“In the circus, you have to adapt,” Hogan says, “so I was looking for a private place, and the only one was by the big cats. We went over there and the man stood beside me and on my other side was the tiger cage.”
At one point during their discussion, Hogan says an awful smell of bad breath came into the air, and he knew it was from one of the animals getting closer to him.
“As soon as I finished the confession, I turned to the cage and staring me right in the face is this tiger! So I just looked back at him and said, ‘Do you want to go next?’”
Circus life is a challenge, he says, and a sturdy grasp of faith and community is essential because it brings steadiness to a life traveled by rail.
“It’s a very difficult life,” Hogan says, “because although money-wise [circus people] do OK, they’re always struggling like all people are in this day and age, but they’re also dealing with danger all the time.”
Those dangers include working closely with animals and the possibility of the animals turning on them, walking a wire or doing a trapeze act, or the many possibilities of injuries or worse, from routine tasks.
Another major part of Hogan’s work is to build meaningful relationships of trust, both inside and outside of the show.
“What we try to do,” he says, “is break down the barriers of prejudice that always surround these people. Being that they travel so much, people outside the circus don’t understand them, but they’re really just like you and me. They have families they love and worry about, they want a good education for their children, and they search for belonging and acceptance”
Dorothy Fabritze has traveled with the circus since January 2000, as a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart. Her original assignment was to teach religion to circus children, but it soon took on other dimensions. She says working and living with circus people reminds her of the scriptural image of the constant journey that everyone is on, and the importance of faith and spirituality in its many forms.
Not all circus performers and workers belong to an organized religion, so much of her effort, like Hogan’s, is focused toward those not being ministered to. Part of that is assisting in the organization of prayer and spiritual study groups on the train, and teaching lay leaders who volunteer for pastoral duties in addition to their work as performers or staff employees.
The circus is a world in miniature, with more than 20 countries represented and multiple languages spoken. Despite such diversity, performers and workers are often united in private expressions of concern for their fellow performers, or in a word – prayer. Father Hogan remembers a trapeze act, which featured four aerialists doing triple back somersaults at the same time.
“Before the troupe went into the arena, they always joined together for a quick prayer,” he says. “It took the edge off, and that little bit of humility reminded them of whose hands they were really counting on to catch them and keep them safe.”
Hogan’s concerns for his traveling flock regularly center on the issues of their general health and how well rested the tour is.
“They’re constantly going somewhere or doing something. Everyone’s always on the go, and a lot of times they don’t get much sleep.”
Sister Dorothy says there’s no act in particular that she worries about, so her prayers during a show tend to be more expressions of gratitude rather than supplication.
“Every act,” she says, “is a glorious miracle. From the biggest elephant to the smallest clown – it all speaks of the divine – and I find it very moving.”
There is an expression in the circus that is used when something comes to an end.
“Instead of saying ‘goodbye’ or ‘so long,’” Hogan says, “we say, ‘ see you down the road.’ It’s not as final. It’s positive – like everything we do.” The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performs Sunday at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. in the Toyota Center in Kennewick.>
If you have a story idea for Light Notes, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lucy on Twitter @LucyLuginbill