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Circus priest offers Easter Mass for last show in Worcester

Posted By April 27, 2017 | 3:40 pm | Featured Article #4
Father George 'Jerry' Hogan distributes Communion at Easter Mass for circus workers at the DCU.
Photo by Tanya Connor
Father George 'Jerry' Hogan distributes Communion at Easter Mass for circus workers at the DCU. Photo by Tanya Connor

By Tanya Connor | THe Catholic Free Press

WORCESTER – For their last Easter Mass, the congregation, numbering about 50, gathered on the DCU Center’s arena floor.
The chaplain borrowed one of their colorful boxes for the altar. The altar cloths and his chasuble sported circus pictures. Costume designers had sewn pieces of old elephant blankets together to make his stole.
The backdrop suggested the reason for this 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 Sunday’s shows. While “they’ve always performed during Holy Week,” they are now going through the paschal mystery themselves, Father George “Jerry” Hogan told The Catholic Free Press.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed Father Hogan national circus chaplain, a position he’s held for 24 years, he said. His ministry to many different circuses falls under the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity, as part of the Subcommittee on the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers. The ministry is funded by an annual grant from the Catholic Extension Society.
Father Hogan lives in Florida from January through March, ministering at St. Martha Parish, the National Circus Church, which has historical connections with Ringling Bros., and keeps the sacramental records for the circus workers, he said. He spends the rest of the year serving where he’s needed in the Boston Archdiocese – when he’s not on the road tending to his circus flock.
The current paschal mystery of the Ringling employees started unexpectedly on Jan. 14, as Father Hogan tells the story. He’d just celebrated Mass for them in Orlando, where they were performing, and had returned to his home in Sarasota to watch the New England Patriots playoff game on television.
A Ringling employee texted him that there was to be a meeting after that night’s show. That evening his cell phone “went wild,” as shocked circus workers called him with the news they’d just received: “We’re closing.” The 145th edition of “The Greatest Show on Earth” would be its last.
He had to ask himself, “How can I help these people?”
Over the years he’s dealt with five circus tragedies, three of which included fatalities, he said.
“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,” he said.
These tragedies affect not only those who get hurt, and their families and co-workers, but the managers and owners too, he said.
He said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment Inc., Ringling’s parent company, is very caring when tragedy strikes.
The same is true with the circus closing.
“He’s a very good businessman,” Father Hogan said. “He didn’t want to close. This is tough for him too.” Reasons cited for the closing included costs, declining attendance and battles with animal rights groups. Employees are 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. The units take turns stopping in various cities. IMG_9320
Worcester was one of the last stops for the Red Unit, which performs its final show in Providence on May 7. (The Blue Unit’s final show is scheduled for Uniondale, N.Y., May 21.)
“I will be with you all week in Providence,” Father Hogan told Red Unit workers at Easter Mass. “You’ll grow. It’s not the end of the world. You’ll be able to survive this.”
Circus workers don’t often get to attend church services because of their schedule and the shortage of chaplains, he told The Catholic Free Press.
In his homily he told circus employees, “Easter is a time to celebrate Jesus’ rising from the dead,” and to celebrate with family.
There had just been an Easter egg hunt for the children, who travel with their parents in the circus, Father Hogan said. When old enough, they often perform too. Some families have been in one circus or another for generations.
Some performers from abroad are far from loved ones. During the intercessions, Father Hogan offered an intention for “all your family and relatives who you can’t be with because you’re working.” He asked that God would watch over the people in the Red Unit in this time of transition, and also prayed for the Blue Unit.
He likened his listeners to the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel, who was reflecting on what was important that first Easter. He acknowledged that the circus workers’ life is totally changing and they may wonder, “How am I going to move from this show?”
“This is a time to really talk to the Lord in prayer, like you’re talking to another person,” Father Hogan said. “You also have to listen.… Be open to that experience.”
A silver lining Father Hogan sees in this dark time is the reception of sacraments May 17 in Uniondale, N.Y., several days before the final show. He said a baby is to be baptized, 12 children are to receive their first Communion, five adults are to be confirmed and one is to be received into the Church.IMG_9343