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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 99 (Suppl.), December 2005



Hospitality of the Church in the United States towards the Circus and Traveling Show People


“How can we help you?”


Rev. George “Jerry” Hogan

National Circus Director



Cardinal Hamao, Archbishop Marchetto and participants in the VII International Congress of the Pastoral Care for Circus and Traveling Show People. I’m privileged to reflect with you on the theme “Hospitality of the Church in the United States towards the Circus and Traveling Show People”.

Since 1992 our Circus and Traveling Show Ministry organization has met annually in January at St. Martha’s Church, Sarasota, Florida. We gather to reflect on our work, focus on the needs of our people and gather in celebration with our annual Circus Mass. Over the years this Mass has become a tradition and symbol to our people. They feel a sense of welcome by St. Martha’s pastor, Fr. Fausto Stampiglia, SAC, who always greets them with his unique style of love and compassion. His tone has catapulted a positive response to the entire Circus community and thus enhanced our ministry.                                       

Hospitality is the key to our ministry whether the Circus, Carnival (American term for traveling shows), or our motor sports, (CART, Indy Cars, NASCAR, or Formula One). Reverend John Vakulskas who has served the carnival people since 1969, is a priest of the Diocese of Sioux City and full time pastor of St. Mary Parish in Alton, Iowa. Reverend Philip DeRea, MSC is National Auto Racing Chaplain. He is a Missionary of the Sacred Heart who has just become pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Rome, Italy. And myself Reverend George “Jerry” Hogan, I have served eleven years part-time as National Circus Chaplain as priest of the Archdiocese of Boston serving part-time as associate pastor of St. Michael Parish in North Andover, Massachusetts...

 How we approach hospitality relies on our mission set forth by the Lord if we believe that “whenever two or three are gathered in my name….” We encounter our people with the Lord’s words inside our hearts. We carry the Lord with us knowing that we are all created in his image. The ministry of the moment can have many different twists and turns, from hearing a Confession behind a Lion’s cage, blessing a carousel to leading 50,000 people in prayer at the start of a Grand Prix Auto Race.

I feel the key element in our hospitality, especially in our ministry of the moment, is the character of the Minister. Our people look for open, honest ministers of integrity, no hidden agendas; no ego’s willing to talk about their lives, their struggles and joys in an atmosphere of confidentiality. 

This hospitality becomes an encounter: “Lord when did we see you…..” We succeed when we are open to the Lord’s grace in the moment.

The ministry of hospitality is a call to affirming our people. First, through the sacramental life of the Church: Baptism, Penance and Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, and even Funerals are opportunities for expressions of welcome by our liturgical presences and kindness. Also, special events in the community: birthdays, anniversaries, opening of a season, special blessings for animals, rides, racecars, etc. All affirm our people and give them a sense that they belong in God’s Church.

One of the challenges confronting our ministry is the constant harassment of our people. They become stereotyped because of their lifestyle of always traveling. Misunderstanding and fear play an important role in the formation of people’s attitude towards our people.

One example: we have an organization in the United States, and I think they are also in Europe, called PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This organization has targeted Circuses; they feel that all animals are abused by Circus people. They want to remove all animals from performing in Circuses. There perception is that Circus people are evil. They mistreat their animals for financial gain. Anytime you try to introduce them to a Circus or invite them into the backyard to see the animals, they will not venture in because they might have to change their perceived attitude. I know other examples with our Carnival and motor sports people.

Our call to hospitality must be a call to break down these perceived attitudes, first by always educating why and how our people live this specific lifestyle. Anytime we have an opportunity to be interviewed in the media, we should explain the Church’s position in regards to our people.

In his audience of December 3, 1981, Pope John Paul II defined the work of show people as a “healthy, relaxing, and intelligent diversion.” The Church and Traveling Show Apostolate refers to the ministry of the Church in the world of show people who create festive occasions for all Americans to enjoy.

The technology of our world has forced our pastoral outreach to change greatly since our last gathering. The computer, cell phone, fax have linked us to one another and our people. The death of Dessi Espana on May 22, 2004 in St. Paul, Minnesota is a clear example. An hour after Dessi’s fall messages were coming in from all over the United States and Bulgaria. We are now connected within minutes. This changes the way we approach our ministry.                                 

Our outreach now depends upon the information highway; we must learn to develop all phases of the internet, from web pages to e-mail in spreading our ministry.  

Here in the United States, our Circus Ministry networks with our Carnival and motor sports community. As I mentioned, we meet annually in Sarasota. In August of 2003, we gathered in St. Cloud, Minnesota and met with Bishop John R. Kinney, designated our Episcopal Liaison with the United States Catholic Conference. We shared ideas and help to affirm one another.

We also network with the Episcopal Church of the United States. Rev. David J. Tetrault is an integral force ministering with us on the three Ringling Shows and lending his pastoral experience at our annual Sarasota gathering.

Our network includes a number of Priests throughout the United States who love Circus and are willing to offer the sacraments. Also four Religious Women, two on the Carson & Barnes Circus out of Hugo, OK and, for the first time in 134 years, two on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus Blue Unit. The presence of these women affirms our theme of hospitality. In many ways, they are the foundation of our work. They have opened up many doors by their presence as they work with our people.                                   

Our Ministry is blessed by a strong lay organization of people willing to help set the tone of hospitality by giving of themselves in many unique ways. A number of our lay volunteers are from other religious traditions.  

Our coordinator, Sister Charlotte Hobelman, SND, works at the United States Catholic Conference in Washington, DC, within the Migrant Ministries section of the People on the Move division of PCMR. Sister sets the tone for hospitality by gathering us annually in Sarasota, Florida and helping us to identify areas of need. Two important areas we are trying to address are education/literacy, and retirement and elder care.

We have two lay volunteers, Art and Beth Ramos who have retired, moved to Florida, bought a house trailer and, this past summer, visited many Circuses throughout the United States, evaluating the education on the shows. They will present a report at our next meeting in January.

We have also formed a Circus and Traveling Show Retirement Project, Inc. The purpose of this organization is to determine the needs of traveling show people, to determine the methods to address these needs and to plan for implementation of an appropriate response.  

We hope to eventually buy land in the Sarasota area calling it “The Winter Quarters”, build a few buildings for meetings, and have electricity and water hook ups for trailers. This is our dream. Of course, we need prayers and some wealthy supporters to make it a reality.

There are a number of organizations that support the Circus people: Circus Fans Association, and the Circus Historical Society. I am a member of both organizations and they have helped us assist our people. 

There are also two important institutions in the American Circus: one is Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where the Ringling Brothers Circus began and wintered for many years. The other is the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, a combination art and circus museum that is expanding its circus collection with a new building called the Howard Tibbels Learning Center. 

Mr. Tibbels has the largest model circus in the world. It will fill a ten thousand square-foot room. This permanent exhibition will open in October of 2005. Both Museums have been an important resource and support to our ministry. Their spirit of hospitality has enabled us to reach important documents about families and help keep the family tradition alive.                                     

The Circus industry is ever changing and reinventing itself. The world has experienced a different type of Circus from Canada called Cirque Du Soleil, a very important player in the Circus world. Here in the United States, I have had occasional contact with the organization through performers who had worked on previous shows. I have celebrated a few weddings but never been afforded the opportunity to have direct access to the backyard. 

Fortunately this past summer in Boston, Mass., Cirque Du Soleil’s show “Varekai” played for six weeks. Their General Manager had previously worked for Ringling Brothers and allowed me access. I was slowly able to develop a sense of trust and hospitality by being there in the moment the seed was planted.

The cornerstone of our ministry will always be the local Church and its response to the Circus and Traveling Show people. We can educate and assist in breaking down the barriers of prejudice but God’s people must be led by the local Church. The Ordinary Bishop could designate a person to assist when a Circus or a Traveling show plays in your diocese. Coordinating Priests to celebrate the sacraments or help our people with specific needs, for example indicating which merchants will help them and not take advantage of the situation.                                                   

A spirit of hospitality, with the simple words: “How can I help you,” will begin the process of welcome and a sense that they have met God in our presence.