For Circus Chaplain, Sacramental Duty Under the Big Top

"Once I was in Raleigh, N.C., and one of the concession people wanted to go to confession between shows. There was nowhere to do go except behind the lion’s cage," said Father Jerry Hogan, circus chaplain. "It was an unusual situation, with the lion on one side of me and the penitent on the other. After I completed the confession, I turned around to see the lion watching us intently. So I asked him, "Do you want to go next?" Because of his unique work, this is one of Father Hogan’s many anecdotes. Speaking to the HERALD in his Boston accent recently from Big Apple Circus’s Creative Arts Center in Waldon, N.Y., he said he has been in this apostolate for the last seven-and-a-half years. Captivated by the "big top" since he was a child, Father Hogan has fulfilled his dream of joining the circus. "It’s exciting. I love these people, working with them, and I love my priesthood, so I’ve got the best of both worlds, a real blessing," he said. Father Hogan is in Virginia through today with the Big Apple Circus, in part to bless the tent at the Dulles Town Center in east Loudoun County. This is the world premier engagement of 27 circus shows as it embarks on an 11-month, 11-city tour, "Clown Around Town." Amid the extraordinary human feats and glamour of show life, Father Hogan helps keep his flock grounded in earthly existence with eyes also on eternity. A mixture of family, business relationships and entertainment, the circus has been likened to a traveling small town. Father Hogan offers Mass, the sacraments and religious education, and his ministry is very much one of presence. When he celebrates Mass, the congregants, his vestments and the scene generally don’t look much like a typical Catholic parish Mass. "For example, I might look out there and see a person with clown makeup or costume, or other clothes on because they’re between shows, so they’re not dressed up like going to church on Sunday," said Father Hogan. Some of his vestments, such as those adorned with circus animals, he said, "were created and given to me by circus people and those in my parish who are very circus-oriented." The assembly is in a non-traditional church setting, "because we don’t have a central place of worship, I say Mass in the tent or behind the building or whatever I can get. The tent is the primary place, similar to a village common, so that’s where I say liturgy. Once we gather together to worship, it’s a very powerful experience." Since the circus personnel are "always on the move and can’t go to church on Sundays because they’re always working," Father Hogan has "permission to perform their marriages and baptisms" for these people who "have no domicile," he said. In his apostolate, Father Hogan travels throughout the United States to some of the country’s nearly 60 circuses. Flying 50,000 miles a year, he refers to the airport as his "second home." The fourth priest in 77 years to occupy the position, Father Hogan knew the first priest, Father Ed Sullivan, who was also from Boston. As well as being a ministry representative for the USCC (United States Catholic Conference), Father Hogan is a priest for the Archdiocese of Boston and is assigned to St. Michael Parish in North Andover, Mass. Sixty-five percent of circus performers are Catholic, due in part to a large Latino population, said Father Hogan. "The key element in circus is that it’s a very closed community," and only opens up to those they know, he said. Some of the smaller shows, the "mud or tent shows" move every day; some of the larger ones settle down in big cities for much longer, often several weeks. "We’ve had a tremendous trust in the last 77 years through the three priests that preceded me, so we’re part of the community. We have our own language, our own culture." Since circuses recruit performers from throughout the world, "it’s very diverse," he said. "They speak many, many languages and learn English very, very fast. I smile in many languages." He used the example of a wedding where the toast to the couple was in 23 languages. Though there are occasional tragedies, such as a performer’s or animal trainer’s injury or death, most of his work is joyous, Father Hogan said. In addition to the many weddings, "we have a lot of fun, such as parties, which they invite me to. For example, tonight after rehearsal the people here are going to go visit people from a nearby circus and have a cook out." "And they work very, very hard," he said, comparing their circumstances to Broadway show actors. In the latter, the performers go home afterward, whereas at the circus, "they live where they work," he said. "They practice extensively, even after an evening show, or in the morning, I might be watching them working on the animal acts for the future. "Having been behind the scenes, I know they treat their animals very, very well. When an animal becomes ill or dies, I do grief counseling. They love their animals and are very attached to them." The Big Apple Circus, founded more than 20 years ago, states that it only partners performers with animals which have a traditional working relationship with man, and that their trainers only employ positive reinforcement when teaching the animals. In one of last weekend’s shows, dogs and horses, who were clearly well-cared-for, performed in the ring. The organization also has community programs for children who are economically or physically challenged, as well as those who are acutely and chronically ill, such as the "Clown Care Unit" program which serves Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. Since 1978, the Catholic Extension Society of Chicago, which provides an annual grant to the USCC, has funded Father Hogan’s national-level circus personnel work. "They’re very important, I couldn’t do my work without them," he said. Under the Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees established in 1983, the USCC also sends priests to minister to mariners, migrant farm workers and stock-car racers. Sister of Notre Dame Charlotte Hobelman is coordinator for migrant ministries for the USCC. She resided at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington until Aug. 1999, and served at the diocese’s Hogar Hispano from 1990-95. The ministry "has expanded to a network of about 30 priests or religious women and a few lay people. The parish priests who are involved serve the circuses as they come through their local area. Some people are initially surprised that we have this type of ministry," she said, but it is part of meeting people where they are. "There are specific Church documents which provide for this kind of pastoral outreach. Also, often our chaplains respond to the needs of people of other faith backgrounds, such as in the instance of a family experiencing the loss of a parent or a circus accident. It’s really an interfaith ministry on many levels." The Vatican has supported this type of ministry since 1971, through the Circus and Traveling Show Apostolate, coordinated by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. As an attendant of international meetings every other year, Father Hogan gave Pope John Paul II a circus jacket at the Sixth International Meeting of Ministers of Circus Carnivals and Fairs in 1993. The Holy Father has said of the performers that "you make up one great traveling family and by your ongoing work offer people, and especially the children, a serene and healthy past-time … a healthy, relaxing and intelligent diversion." The Big Apple Circus is performing at Dulles Town Center, at the intersection of Routes 7 and 28, through Oct. 9. For circus information visit web site: www.bigapplecircus.org. For tickets call 703/218-6500 or visit web site: www.tickets.com.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2000