Two circus performers who were united in marriage at an Oct. 15 Mass at St. Michael Parish in North Andover pose at their wedding reception, held in the parish hall. The performers travel as part of the Ringling Brothers circus. They were in Boston for a show that same night. Pilot photo/courtesy of Sister Lisa Valentini, MSC
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NORTH ANDOVER -- A circus ministry team, which includes a Boston priest, is charged with bringing the word of God to circus performers, people who are constantly on the move due to the demands of their job.
“They either live on the trailer or on the train,” said Father Jerry Hogan, a national circus chaplain who is also on the ministry team at St. Michael Parish in North Andover. “Their world is confined and very small physically.”
In addition to his normal priestly duties at St. Michael’s, Father Hogan travels with the Ringling Brothers circus for about four to five weeks per year.
In his role as circus chaplain, a role which he has held for the past 16 years, Father Hogan travels with a team of ministers for the Ringling Brothers circus administering sacraments, saying or arranging Mass, counseling performers, visiting injured performers in the hospital, and even saying circus workers’ funeral Masses. He also arranges for the worship needs of non-Catholic workers.
Sister Dorothy Fabritize, MSC, who also travels with and ministers to the circus workers, compared circus ministry life with Biblical times.
“It’s the Biblical story all over again as we move from town to town,” said. “You’re on this journey. Life is a journey. It is a journey of walking in God, for God, and to God.”
“There are just so many correlations to Scripture,” she added. “You’re living the Scripture when you’re living with the circus people. Their itinerant lifestyle makes them different a little bit in that you’re constantly moving. We have constancy with the people we move with.”
Recently, Father Hogan celebrated numerous sacraments with a number of circus performers at his home parish.
On Oct. 15, the same day that the Ringling Brothers circus performed at the TD Garden in Boston, Father Hogan convalidated a marriage, gave seven First Communions, administered seven confirmations, and received one adult into the Church, giving her all three Sacraments of Initiation.
Sister Dorothy was the catechist who prepared all recipients of the various sacraments for this occasion. She also serves as a school teacher for young performers.
Father Hogan recalls numerous stories about priestly work with circus performers, like when he visited one in the hospital after the performer had been injured during a show. Later, when that performer died, Father Hogan said the funeral Mass.
Father Hogan also recalls presenting Pope John Paul II with a circus jacket, a later visit where he gave the late Holy Father a ringmaster’s hat, as well as saying a Christmas Mass under a tent in Paris that was televised throughout Europe.
He also remembers hearing confessions on an elephant tub.
“On one side, I’m hearing confession and on the other side, a lion was looking at me,” said Father Hogan. “He was looking at me like I was his next meal.”
Father Hogan says that circus ministry happens at a quick pace.
“Everything has to be done fast,” he said. “It’s a ministry of presence.”
“You have to do everything fast because of the time they are working on,” he added.
Roughly 60-percent of the circus workers are Catholic, he said. Workers from 21 countries, a number of which are traditionally Catholic, opened the Boston show.
He also pointed out that in a number of cases, circus performance is a family tradition.
“Some people are five, six, or seven generations,” he said.
For Sister Dorothy, circus work represents a “missionary chasm.” As she works with the circus performers, they give something back to her in return.
“They in turn minister to me helping me to see God in every moment in the performing. They minister to me in the trapeze skills by letting go and being caught by the catcher. The tightrope walkers witness to the idea of balance in life,” she said. “They help me to see God in every moment. They are ministering to me and I am ministering to them. It’s a two-way street.”