Performing Arts

Faith under the Big Top: Religion at the circus

Father Jerry Hogan, circus chaplain for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for the past 21 years, remembers the time a concessions worker asked to go to confession between performances.

“I was looking for a private place,” Hogan said, “and the only one was by the big cats.”

Hogan listened to the man and counseled him. Then he smelled a tiger’s hot, bad breath ensconce him and turned to see the killer animal inches from his face.

“So I just looked back at him and said, ‘Do you want to go next?’” Hogan said. “In the circus, you have to adapt.”

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, in Miami this month, includes more than 300 performers and other individuals on its “blue tour,” who spend countless hours to ensure the shows go off without a hitch.

In their tight-knit, itinerant community, they depend on each other for support and encouragement, and they turn to faith, which Hogan said brings steadiness to a life traveled by rail. “A very difficult life,” he said.

Hogan counsels, comforts and reassures his “flock.” About 65 percent of them are Catholic, he said, but he also serves as a confidant, providing a strong shoulder and a listening ear, to anyone who wants to talk. Another major part of Hogan’s work is to build meaningful relationships of trust, both inside and outside of the show.

“What we try to do is break down the barriers of prejudice that always surround these people. Being that they travel so much, people outside the circus don’t understand them, but they’re really just like you and me,” he said. “They have families they love and worry about. They want a good education for their children. And they search for belonging and acceptance.”

Dorothy Fabritze has traveled with the circus since 2000 as a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart. Her original assignment was to teach religion to circus children, but it soon took on other dimensions.

She said working and living with circus people reminds her of the scriptural image of the constant journey that everyone is on, and the importance of faith and spirituality in its many forms. Not all circus performers and workers belong to an organized religion, so much of her effort, like Hogan’s, is focused toward those not being ministered to. Part of that is assisting in the organization of prayer and spiritual study groups on the train, and teaching lay leaders who volunteer for pastoral duties in addition to their work as performers or staff employees.

The circus is a world in miniature, with more than 20 countries represented and multiple languages spoken. Despite such diversity, performers and workers are often united in private expressions of concern for their fellow performers — prayer. It’s a routine for people who regularly walk on tightropes without a net beneath them, who work alone with a pride of lions, and who try their very best to entertain audiences every day.

Hogan recalled four aerialists who joined together for a quick prayer before their trapeze act that included a simultaneous triple back somersault.

“It took the edge off, and that little bit of humility reminded them of whose hands they were really counting on to catch them and keep them safe,” he said.

Fabritze said she focuses her showtime prayers to be expressions of gratitude.

“Every act,” she said, “is a glorious miracle. From the biggest elephant to the smallest clown — it all speaks of the divine, and I find it very moving.”

Among circus folks, there’s an expression they use at the end of a tour instead of telling each other goodbye.

“We say, ‘See you down the road,’” Hogan said. “It’s not as final. It’s positive. Like everything we do.”

If you go

What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey: Legends

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18; and 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 19

Where: AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Cost: $16-$75 (through Ticketmaster); children’s tickets start at $10