Three-Ring Circus

When “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the Barnum and Bailey circus was in town recently, I thought it would be fun to escape totally the routine of the day and go to the circus. I had not been to a circus in years and thought it would be mindless, allowing me to get lost for a while.

three-ring circus
Each priest — and for that matter each person in our parishes — is probably living the three-ring circus of life. Shutterstock photo

So I arrived and sat in the midst of humanity, and all eyes were glued to the center ring. The parade of characters and animals began, and it was quite a display of color, drama and excitement. I was afraid to look one way for fear of missing something somewhere else. I saw clowns with sad faces and others wearing happy faces. There were people juggling bowling pins, baseballs and swords all at once. There were mimes “speaking” loudly with their gestures. There were lions, tigers and bears. After they all paraded offstage, action began in each of the three rings. At a circus, you don’t know where to look as there is so much to absorb at once. The more I watched, the more I realized that I wasn’t escaping my day, but that I was being reminded of my day. What I was seeing was my life. It was like an out-of-body experience, stepping away from the day to day and watching my life unfold under the big circus tent of life. All those characters that had just paraded past could easily be characters in a parody, a caricature, a spoof on the daily life of a priest.

Each priest — and for that matter each person in our parishes — is probably living the three-ring circus of life. All we need to do is listen to people talk about their lives. Husbands and wives are juggling their work schedule, their kids’ schedules, and their family schedule. They are running from one ring to another just trying to keep their wits about them as they juggle not bowling pins and balls but parent–teacher meetings, sports events, job commitments, an in-law birthday and then the request from their Church to volunteer for the parish council or a fundraiser. We all are running in all directions, not knowing which way to look next because so much frenzied activity is going on at once. Sometimes we wonder how it all happens. Probably like that menagerie of animals and constant frantic activity under the circus tent, we cannot see it all at once and will always be missing something.

As the circus acts unfolded one after another, I felt more and more that this was our life in microcosm. I watched those walking that tight rope, stepping so gently, so gingerly, so carefully, and so intently. How many moments in parish life do we do the same? We may not be 100 feet above when doing so, but we know one wrong slip of the tongue, one wrong misstep with that parishioner we know is trying to trip us up — and down we go. These moments, which often can be anticipated, are not enjoyable. There are a few hot button topics in every parish that, when it comes up in conversation sends us into “tight-rope” mode. At my parish, I dread when someone says to me leaving church, “Father, I’ll call you later in the week about the cemetery.” They won’t be calling to say that they want to buy a lot, but to remind me that the cemetery needs some work. They will be telling me only what I already know. Though the parish is slowly addressing its needs, it is never fast enough or good enough, so I have to respond carefully and gingerly to avoid angering them more than they already are. These tight-rope moments also occur occasionally in personnel conversations at evaluation time or firing time. I never want to trip over my own words.

busy parish life
When all is said and done, even though the circus can be exhausting with all the acts, all the rings, all the drama and far too many things going on at once, it, like parish life, can be fun. W.P. Wittman photo

In the next circus ring is a cage full of tigers that are hungry, and you know that you look mighty tasty. The lion dens of parish life are, fortunately, infrequent. When I worked in clergy personnel and had to deliver to a parish the bad news that a pastor was being removed from ministry or even just the normal transfers of life, the parishioners in that parish were growling loud and clear. The loudest growl was when I announced, “Due to the fewer number of priests, you are not receiving your own pastor but sharing one.” In moments like that, I could use the whip that the lion trainer has in that cage. We all have been there; remember the time you announced that the number of Masses was being reduced. People are fine with the idea until you take away their Mass. It is like taking a slab of meat from a hungry lion.

It would be easier just to run out of the cage and close the door behind you and let the lions tear each other apart. As you run out, you throw yourself into the next ring where the acrobats are holding on for dear life and let go only to be caught by a trusted friend. It takes a lot of trust to let go and hope against hope that the friend is there. Thank God, we all have that trust-worthy friend, trust-worthy co-worker, reliable employee who is there to catch us or to catch those things that we have allowed to fall through the cracks. I think of the friend on whom I call for prayer, or to just listen to me vent, the one I know will be there when I’m about to jump off the parapet of my church’s steeple due to those I-cannot-take-this-anymore moments. Then there are those moments of panic when you totally forget to send in a contract that was due last week, and you hear the words from your administrative assistant, “Don’t worry about it, Father, I called last week and got an extension for you.” It is a relief that, during these three-ring-circus-of-life moments, others seem to be in control of their circle when you are off in another one.

It is a juggling act sometimes, whether you are juggling three of the same things (three bowling pins) or three different things (bowling pin, baseball, sword). Most of us are in the latter when you think of the hat or hats we wear. Are we wearing a tricorne hat like our American patriots, or are we actually wearing three hats. It would be easier if we wore one hat that had multiple dimensions, but most of us are wearing three. Each hat seems unrelated to the other two. Many of us are parish priests, and then, in addition to that, we might be on the priest council so we have to put on that hat. Then, as we leave the priest council, we put on the hat of caretaker for an aging parent. All three demand from us a different skill base and different energy, and each needs its own hat.

Parish life would be boring if there were only one ring. Imagine only one ring full of sad-faced clowns. Parishioners who seem to have painted a sad face on themselves drain us so quickly. When you see that a sad face is about to greet you in the after-Mass receiving line, do you, like me, try not to engage too long lest that sad face is contagious. They never seem to have a good day, and even if you say, “Isn’t this weather great today?” they will say, “But they’re predicting rain later.” Don’t you just want to scream or, even worse, leap without caring if there is a trusting friend to catch you? Fortunately, there are enough parishioners out there with a happy face on them to keep your spirits up.

When all is said and done, even though the circus can be exhausting with all the acts, all the rings, all the drama and far too many things going on at once, it, like parish life, can be fun. You look out from the presider chair each weekend as if you are sitting in the arena bleachers under the circus tent. Like the circus characters, parishioners come in all shapes and sizes: the fat lady, the guy so tall you think he is on stilts, the mimes in the pew who are constantly saying something to their kids but you don’t know what, those who are bored but would be bored at the circus too. You have got to laugh at it to keep your sanity; If you don’t, you will soon be crying like the sad-faced clown. The end of the circus show is like the end of your day. There is only one person left — you, and you are carrying a shovel and broom to clean up all the messes they all left behind. TP 

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org