Catholic chaplain accompanies anguished circus workers on final tour

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tanya Connor, The Catholic Free Press

By Tanya Connor

WORCESTER, Mass. (CNS) — The
congregation, numbering about 50, gathered for their last Easter Mass together on
the DCU Center’s arena

The chaplain, Father George “Jerry”
Hogan, borrowed one of their colorful boxes to use as an altar. The
altar cloths and his chasuble sported circus images. Costume designers had sewn
pieces of old elephant blankets together to make his stole.

The backdrop suggested the
reason for such an unusual liturgical environment: The Ringling Bros. and
Barnum & Bailey Circus had come to town to offer shows on Good Friday, Holy
Saturday and Easter Sunday.

But it isn’t all “fun and games”
for performers and other circus workers, some of whom attended the Mass before the
Easter shows. While “they’ve always performed during Holy Week,” they are
now going through the paschal mystery themselves, Father Hogan told The
Catholic Free Press, newspaper of the Diocese of Worcester.

The Ringling circus was nearing
the end of its 145-year run and the workers, including frontline performers,
were in a quandary about their future. They learned Jan. 14 that the circus
was closing.

Father Hogan, who has been
national circus chaplain for 24 years after being appointed by the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled the anguish of the workers when they
learned of show’s fate just hours after he celebrated Mass for them in Orlando,
Florida, where they were performing.

His cellphone “went
wild” at his winter home in Sarasota, Florida, where he ministers at St.
Martha Parish, the national circus church, as shocked circus workers called him
with the news they received: “We’re closing.” The 145th edition of “The
Greatest Show on Earth” would be its last.

The priest of the Boston
Archdiocese had to ask himself, “How can I help these people?”

Over the years, Father Hogan has
dealt with five circus tragedies, three of which included fatalities, he said,
but this was different.

“First of all, you’ve got to
deal with your own feeling, because you become numb,” he said. Then you have to
look past that to what God is calling you to do. It’s more than hearing; it’s
listening, being physically present.”

Such tragedies affect not only
those who get hurt, and their families and co-workers, but the managers and
owners too, he said.

He described Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of
Feld Entertainment Inc., Ringling’s parent company, as very caring when
tragedy strikes.

The same is true with the circus

“He’s a very good businessman,”
Father Hogan said. “He didn’t want to close. This is tough for him, too.”

Reasons cited for the closing
included costs, declining attendance and battles with animal rights groups.
Employees were to be helped with the transition.

Ringling’s Red Unit and Blue
Unit each have at least 300 employees, about 100 of whom are performers, Father
Hogan said. The circus runs two different shows simultaneously, for two years
each, performing in various cities.

Worcester was one of the last
stops for the Red Unit, which was to perform its final show in Providence,
Rhode Island, May 7. The Blue Unit’s final show is May 21 in Uniondale,
New York.

“I will be with you all week in
Providence,” Father Hogan told Red Unit workers at the Easter Mass. “You’ll
grow. It’s not the end of the world. You’ll be able to survive this.”

In his homily, he told circus employees,
“Easter is a time to celebrate Jesus’ rising from the dead,” and to celebrate
with family.

There had just been an Easter
egg hunt for the children who travel with their parents, Father Hogan said.
When old enough, they often perform, too. Some families have been in one circus
or another for generations.

Some performers from abroad are
far from loved ones. During the intercessions, Father Hogan offered an
intention for “all your family and relatives who you can’t be with because
you’re working.” He asked that God would watch over the people in the Red Unit
in this time of transition, and also prayed for the Blue Unit.

He likened his listeners to the
beloved disciple in the Gospel, who was reflecting on what was important that
first Easter. He acknowledged that the circus workers’ life is totally changing
and they may wonder, “How am I going to move from this show?”

“This is a time to really talk
to the Lord in prayer, like you’re talking to another person,” Father Hogan
said. “You also have to listen. … Be open to that experience.” 

A silver lining Father Hogan
sees in the dark times people are experiencing is the reception of sacraments in
Uniondale several days before the final show. He said a baby is to
be baptized, 12 children are to receive their first Communion, five adults are
to be confirmed and one is to be received into the church.

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Connor is a staff writer for The Catholic
Free Press, newspaper of the Diocese of Worcester.

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