National News

Final Blessing for the Greatest Show on Earth

Father Jerry Hogan, national circus chaplain, celebrates Easter Mass for circus workers at the DCU Center arena in Worcester, Mass. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Tanya Connor)

By Tanya Connor

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

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, Mass.

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 hours after he celebrated Mass for them in Orlando, Fla., where they were performing.

His cellphone “went wild” at his winter home in Sarasota, Fla., 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?”

Different Kind of Tragedy

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.”

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, R.I., May 7. The Blue Unit’s final show is May 21 in Uniondale, L.I.

“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.”

Share this article with a friend.