Finding Faith Under the Big Top: the Circus Chaplain

Jocelyn Thomas Friar News

Ross blesses an elephant from The Shrine Circus in Buffalo, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Ross)

ALLEGANY, N.Y. — Ministering to people outside the walls of the church is not unusual. But praying and offering sacraments at a circus is a bit more uncommon. That’s what Ross Chamberland, OFM, has been doing this year, and he is appreciating the role in more ways than one.

“I have always enjoyed the circus,” he said. “I have been a fan of all things performed live – music, sports, theatre – but the circus has been my favorite.”

Since January, he has been a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ subcommittee of the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees, and Travelers (PCMRT), part of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Cultural Diversity of the Church, which enables him to bless animals and people, to celebrate sacraments, and to get to know a culture and a community for which he has great admiration.

Admiring the Communities
Ross, a native of New Hampshire, said he remembers his mother taking him to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Farewell tour of Gunther Gabel Williams at the Boston Garden in the 1980s. “That was the first circus I remember. My parish used to host a traveling tent circus in the summer when I was a teenager.

“The people are absolutely amazing,” he added. “They are wonderfully family oriented. Many performers and shows are multi-generational. They witness to the family unit in ways I have never seen before.

“These communities are exactly that – communities,” said the friar with the ready smile. “They live and travel together. They work and play together – and, they pray together. The talents shared by the performers bring joy and excitement to thousands of people, who marvel at their gifts.”

On July 14, an interview with Ross will be broadcast on Our Daily Bread, a program produced by the Daybreak TV of the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., and broadcast on Catholic Television across the country.  The program on the circus will air at 6:30 a.m. and at noon on WKBW-TV. Ross and ringmaster John Kennedy Kane were interviewed by Fr. Paul Seil in May.

Ross, who is stationed at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York, said that recently he has blessed, celebrated Mass for and/or attended shows in several New York towns – Binghamton, Buffalo, Eden and New York City, as well as in Niagara Falls, Canada. Later this month, he will be going to the Circus City Festival in Peru, Ind., which is “a series of huge celebrations,” Ross said.

His involvement began as an academic and spiritual contribution, said the friar who is SBU’s special assistant to the vice president for enrollment and executive director of the Lateran Center.

“I wanted to assist the ministry by helping the members learn about mendicant spirituality – as they often refer to their traveling lifestyle being similar to that of gypsies – and hopefully publish something in that arena,” he said. “My coming to know the people, and the ministry, better informed me of the need for active engagement in the pastoral ministry as well. Show-people are often performing two or three shows a day on the weekends, which does not allow them much access to the sacraments. We bring the sacraments to the people on the move. The religious sisters in the ministry actually travel and work with the circuses. While doing so, they offer the youth and adults religious education and RCIA preparation

“As a ministry, we celebrate dozens of baptisms, confirmations and first communions this season: hundreds of Masses and thousands of blessings. Many of the show-folks are involved in dangerous performances. The ministry is not unfamiliar with frequent offering of the sacraments of healing and even funerals.”

Ross blesses a snake and performer from Billy Martin’s Cole All-star Circus in Eden, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Ross)

Blessing Animals and People
“Personally, my life as a Franciscan is enhanced by this ministry and I believe that our spirituality and tradition can offer much to enhance theirs. And, of course, there’s the Franciscan tradition of blessing animals. I have seen first-hand the beautifully-treated animals, and have blessed elephants, tigers, lions, and snakes, to name a few.”

In the six months that Ross has been a circus chaplain, he feels he has gained much more than he has given.

“I stand in awe of the faith and family commitments of this often misunderstood community,” he said. “I think we bring the Church’s hope and healing through both the sacramental celebrations and, a simple ministry of presence to all show-folks who travel with the circus.”

He continued, “One thing I have realized is that the circus shares much in common with the liturgy. The circus is exactly what it presents itself to be. The people are not performing a play, written by someone else and using artificial characters to offer that performance. The circus performers cultivate and share their very selves and the gifts God has given them. The liturgy is not a performance of memory, taking on a cast of characters; rather, the liturgy is primary theology, presenting itself to be exactly what it is – the sacramental presence of Christ. There are so many ways to respond to the generous gifts of God, and this ministry has helped me to understand that better.”

The PCMRT Subcommittee ministers to various communities that are categorized by either ethnicity or by their life on the move, said Ross, who professed his solemn vows as a Franciscan in 2014. The Circus and Traveling Shows Ministry is among eight Ministries to People on the Move.

“It is properly placed under the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees, and Travelers for the obvious reason that circus shows travel by design, but also because many of these people are immigrants from countries all around the world, dealing with all the same challenges all immigrants experience,” said Ross. “Even though the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show closed last year (after 146 years), there are still more than 30 circuses traveling this country.”

Ross poses in front of the Ringling Brothers train during a stop on its farewell tour. (Photo courtesy of RosS)

Fr. Jerry Hogan of the Archdiocese of Boston, serves as the national chaplain of the PCMRT Subcommittee, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane, of the Diocese of Venice, Fla., is the Episcopal liaison to the Circus and Traveling Shows Ministry.

Because the performing companies travel at varying times of the year, the schedule that Ross ministers at the circus will vary throughout the year. In addition to priests, others who participate in this initiative, assisting in this ministry across the country, are a deacon, several religious sisters, and many laypeople.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

Related Links