The Legitimate Liturgical Function of Clowns

“Can you tell me the origins of the ‘Clown Mass’?” was not the first thing I expected to hear when I walked into my American Catholic history class a few days ago. Somehow, somewhere, one of my students had discovered a (rather frightening) internet video of said “Clown Mass.” Perhaps understandably, this student (and soon the whole room) wondered in what possible context the Clown Mass would have been a good idea. Because, let’s be honest: if nothing else, clowns are creepy.

The Clown Mass, or “clown ministry’” as the larger phenomenon would be called, really did exist, and the intent behind this ministry is fascinating. In short, a “Clown Mass” involved liturgical ministers and congregation members dressing up…as clowns. Donning garish colors, light-up antennae, face paint, and red noses provided a means of tangibly and concretely heightening one’s awareness of human absurdity, inviting a refreshing playfulness into the sometimes-too-serious business of worship. Certainly, dressing the part in a ritual context placed the folly of humanity and the glory of God in sharp contrast; for where is the meeting of God and frail humans more intense than in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist?

Forms of “clown ministry” were practiced as early as the 1960s, but experienced something of a popularity surge in the early 1980s. One such comprehensive “clown ministry” was run by the Sisters of Mount St. Benedict, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Sisters involved in the ministry dressed in clown costumes for retreats, ministry outreach events, and worship services, as a way to spread the Gospel with a touch of humor and a lot less severity than a nun in a traditional habit might project. As one sister, also known as “Bubbles,” reported, “The traditional Christian message seems to get boxed in. What we attempt to do [with this ministry] is break down some of those barriers.” (Beaver County Times, 8/17/1986).

Before we judge “Bubbles,” it is important to note that these same religious sisters from Mount St. Benedict, through the 1970s, had been intensely involved (as so many religious sisters had) with protests for peace and justice: anti-war efforts abroad and civil rights organization at home. For sisters whose lives were so consumed with opposing violence and injustice, the joyful, gentle humor of clown ministry provided balance in their vocation. As another sister from St. Benedict’s observed:

“It’s real easy…to go from one [social justice] vigil to the next…. You can easily get stuck in a position where you’re saying ‘No’ all the time: ‘No, we shouldn’t bomb Libya. No, we shouldn’t fund the Contras. No, we shouldn’t be involved in Central America. No, we shouldn’t be building up this weapon system.’ To see the same group [of sisters] have clowning as part of prayer and worship integrates [their vocation]. It all ties together, but I don’t think people always put those together and I think it’s good for them to see.” (Beaver County Times, 8/17/1986).

Bringing clowns to Christianity put a new face on the Christian message—made it playful, and took St. Paul’s words seriously (or literally): “We are all fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10). For these sisters, whose faces were turned constantly to the horrors of human suffering, putting on a mask and a wig allowed them moments of release—while still being faithful servants of God. In a world, much like ours, on the brink of Cold War, the counterpoint of the ridiculous in Christian witness and worship could be welcome, indeed.

Distinct from clown ministry at large, the practice of the “Clown Mass” in specific was met with swifter response by a concerned National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (responding to repeated questions from the Congregation for Divine Worship) in the Bishops’ Newsletter appearing in November of 1985. Though the Committee did not doubt the sincerity of those involved in clown ministry, in the context of the Mass, clowns were officially deemed as having no legitimate liturgical function. No more were we to “send in the clowns” it seems—at least during Mass.

But, more seriously, the use of the clown Mass begs important questions regarding inculturation. At what point is a “line” drawn regarding what elements of the arts, culture, and society are “acceptable” as material for the “holy” or not? Who draws that line? The document, “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship,” for example, describes the need for both “quality” and “appropriateness” of art and arts employed in worship settings (no. 20, 21). Even if a clown is quality, is the clown, by its very nature, not appropriate?

How do other forms of art and culture fare? As Sacrosanctum Concilium notes, the “genius and talents” of various peoples can be preserved and admitted to the Liturgy “so long as they harmonize with [the Liturgy’s] true and authentic spirit” (no. 37). So, what of abstract stained glass? Of folk idioms in music? Of liturgical dance? It seems that, rather than the particular type of art or cultural element in question, the more pressing issue is how that particular element functions in any given society. That is, liturgical arts and aesthetics, indeed, any of the liturgical ministries, should not become “ends” in themselves, but serve as vehicles or transmitters of the holy. Liturgical art and ministry should not distract the faithful. A good lector should “disappear” behind the text proclaimed; a good set of altar paraments should be signs of the feast and season and not clash with the presider’s vestments (and vice versa). Liturgical arts and the skill of liturgical ministers never serve the Liturgy fully if their form attracts more attention than their function.

So, perhaps my students’ question remains: if clown Masses were permissable, would there be any possible context in which a clown Mass would be a good idea? If there were a context in which the faithful were not distracted by the form of light-up noses and polka-dot stoles…and many of us weren’t naturally terrified of clowns…in theory, perhaps, it could be possible.

 

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51 comments

  1. Interesting context, Katharine. In general, I sometimes wonder if we worry that any amount of fun in the eucharistic context is too much, such as when we look at the practice of having more than one person proclaim the Passion.

    Playfulness can feel threatening if we suspect irreverence, but it can also come from humility. I like your insight that the sisters weren’t taking the Eucharist but themselves with less than complete seriousness.

    Also, welcome to PrayTell!

  2. It’s an oversimplification to say this was an attempt to make the Mass playful and refreshing. The basic premise was that the clown was a classic figure: an outsider, a victim-healer who stands in solidarity with others yet apart from them. The central clown figure was Jesus in the thinking that accompanied this development of “clown ministry.” I’m not saying there were none who treated this in a superficial manner, but there was theological reflection behind it for its most ardent supporters. (I was not one of them, but I knew some.)

    Also missing from this account is the enormous influence of the musical “Godspell” in producing this focus on clowning as a medium of religious story-telling in a secular world that has lost sight of the gospel.

    The story of Jesus in Godspell involves the people he encounters putting on face-paint in order to follow him. They have to become like him, the iconic outsider who reflects back tragedy in comedic form to people who have lost touch with their humanity. The “sad faced” clown is important to the genre.

    If it were just a break from protests and facing tragedy, that would be one thing. I might “understand” that, but I wouldn’t respect it as I do the other. The central point of the exercise was Christological.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #2:
      Rita, thank you for asking us to go deeper into this conversation and for bringing up the image of the outsider and victim. When this column was first posted, I sensed we would all have a good time with it. Count me among those creeped out by clowns. But I’m anxious to hear from liturgical historians or those who study the history of spirituality or non-Christian religions on this topic. It seems that mythology, opera, literature, courtly life and so many other things incorporate the jester, fool or outsider. Consider the Simpleton in Boris Goudunov, the courtly character Rigoletto himself, the trickster-spirit God, etc…The most structured institutions seemed to have demanded the presence of this type of figure in their hierarchy. Grant you, applying this to 20th century liturgy is a stretch. But – historians, here’s where you come in -how has the Christian tradition embraced or utilized the role of the “holy fool?” I can’t imagine any historical Christian liturgical manifestations of it, but….? Maybe the question should be why didn’t the Church adopt this type of figure, given the prominence of the fool/jester in medieval/Renaissance courtly life and the Church’s close connection to it. Once again, I’m not suggesting this is the origin or rationale for clown masses, I’m intrigued by the similarities. I’m grateful for the 1985 document; I’m more proud to have worked in a diocesan office that actually needed to develop polka mass guidelines as referenced elsewhere in these posts.

      1. @Michael Silhavy – comment #20:
        “But – historians, here’s where you come in -how has the Christian tradition embraced or utilized the role of the “holy fool?” I can’t imagine any historical Christian liturgical manifestations of it, but….?”

        Yes, indeed. The Russians have a word for holy fool: Yurodivyi. There are a lot of them in Russian orthodoxy (wikipedia alerts us to the existence of at least 3 dozen). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Yurodivy

        One of the most renowned is Basil the Blessed. The iconic cathedral in Red Square in Moscow is known colloquially by his name; he is buried there. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/russia/moscow-st-basil-cathedral He has the distinction of having challenged Ivan the Terrible!

        But maybe I am not grasping your point, Michael. Sort of depends on what you mean by “liturgical manifestations.” These saints are on the Russian calendar, have places of worship named after them, devotions to them. But if you mean a moment of foolishness in liturgy – intended foolishness – that’s another question.

        Of course there was the Feast of Fools, but that was extra-liturgical.
        http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/212758/Feast-of-Fools

  3. I once had an exchange on a traditionalist blog about liturgical inculturation. Others were complaining bitterly about “innovations” and “creativity” in the liturgy, the “say the black and do the red” mentality. I asked if that very blog had not earlier applauded the practice at the Roman Panteon of dropping thousands of rose petals through the oculus on Pentecost. This may be a hallowed tradition now, but someone had to do it for the first time, and it certainly was an innovation.

    I think it comes down to: Innovations I like = organic development; Innovations I don’t like = runaway creativity.

  4. Godspell opened off-Broadway in 1971, toured extensively and was revived on Broadway as recently as 2011-2012. It has also been a staple of amateur theater and youth groups across the country up to this day, not to mention the audiences that saw the movie.

    Henri Nouwen in the book Clowning in Rome (1979) had this to say about why he chose this title: “Of the virtuosi we say, ‘How do they do it?’ Of the clowns we say, ‘They are like us.’ The clowns remind us . . . that we share the same human weaknesses.” The clown is a “powerful image to help us understand the role of the minister in contemporary society.” Playing the clown, Nouwen explores four “clownlike” or “foolish” elements in the spiritual life: being alone, treasuring emptiness, standing naked before God, and simply seeing things for what they are.”

    I am saying this to bring up context that predates the 1980s. Frankly, I thought clown ministry was over by the 1980s but it probably hung on longer in some parts of the country than in others. By the time that USCCB letter was published in 1985, most of the energy around this was already spent istm.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #5:
      Rita, thanks for adding so much –both theologically and contextually–to this post! Regarding Godspell: a clown Mass witness (who shall remain nameless) recounted to me that music from Godspell was used during the clown Mass this witness experienced. In short, further evidence to your point regarding how the musical influenced this form of liturgical reflection.

  5. The problem with using clowns at Mass is that clowns are, in our society, performers. It’s hard to have clowns without turning the assembly into an audience.

    It is also beyond ironic though that the same people who disparage the 1962 missal and call it a “clerical sacred drama” in which lay people can never possibly participate in, would then serioulsy countentance the possibility of using clowns during the mass.

    1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #6:
      Stanislaus, Get off the ’62 missal issue already. Too often you do this complaint that “it’s not fair, how come the other side can…” etc. This post isn’t about the 1962 missal. Please respond to the issue of the post – such as you do in your first paragraph – or your comments will be deleted.
      awr

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #8
        See that’s where you misunderstand me, Father Anthony, I’m not complaining that “it’s not fair,” I’m pointing out a deep inconsistency in your approach to liturgical matters that threatens to undermine your whole project. You can’t say, we can’t do x because of y, and then go around and act as though its ok to ignore y without quickly falling into incoherence.

      2. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #12:
        In my opinion – whatever one thinks of clowns – the (occasional) performance of clowns in (rare) postconciliar liturgies on the one hand, and the all-pervasive performance of the priest in the entire preconciliar setup is not just apples and oranges – it’s apples and screwdrivers.

        I wish you wouldn’t try to force the comparison and connect everything up with your hobby horse, 1962.

        awr

      3. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #13:
        Maybe if you stopped taking every chance you get to disparage the “unreformed liturgy” such as in your latest post about St. Peter’s, I wouldn’t feel compelled to point out this general incoherence. I don’t even attend the EF more than once or twice a year, and I despise most of the traditionalist movement.

      4. @Stanislaus Kosala:
        I still like what the late Fr.George Mehok said about the Latin mass. It’s like calling plays that nobody can understand. I have attended a few masses in the Latin and if I had to attend them weekly there is no way I would. I suffered through ad orientem last year and said enough to that too. We have to be careful not to be condescending catholics. Your mass is not good enough and this is the only way attitude will split rather than unite Catholics.

    2. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #6:
      I would largely agree, but not 100%. Your standard would largely dismiss choirs of any age, unless they were involved with a dialogue with the assembly. Which is the way they function in the best of liturgies.

      Clowns engage their audience in the modern context, often in ways more than laughter and applause. They often draw participants in: children and the unwilling.

      I am intrigued by the traditional role of the jester or fool to poke at the powerful aristocracy, enabling the leadership caste to experience truth-telling without literally calling them out. Regarding the administrative mismanagement of sex predators, maybe a few bishops could use a jester to poke a bit at their blindness. If not in the liturgy, perhaps in the episcopal mansion, rectory, or humble apartment.

  6. Has any research been undertaken into the extent to which the Catholic Church in the US serves simultaneously as both ‘safety valve’ and ‘ghetto’ for political ideologies that are ruthlessly excluded from civil society? It strikes me that many of the ‘liturgical innovations’ – much like the J&P campaigns – are indicative of the very deep frustrations of people excluded from the political arena in a deeply conservative nation with quasi-religious attachments to ‘the American Dream’ and the flag.

  7. There are other examples of what I would call “worship fads” initiated by the appeal of certain genres of music or, in the case of clown Masses, performing arts and musical theater.

    There is the U2charist, in the Episcopal Church (Eucharist with music of U2). http://u2-charist.com/about There is the “Rave Mass.” There are rap or hip hop Masses. There’s the polka Mass.

    These are passing trends. I’m not a proponent, but I don’t think we have to demonize them either. Typically, they are not cynical but naive, someone’s sincere (if misguided) attempt at meaning-making by mixing genres usually thought to be mutually exclusive. They usually crop up in a liturgical tradition strong enough to take it without collapsing. Surprisingly enough the clown thing lasted longer than some of them — though not longer than the polka Mass. 😉

  8. Wait, is this a serious article, or an Onion style thing? I thought it was a funny self-parody, but there is no humor tag.

    There really was someone running a “comprehensive clown ministry”?

    I thought these clown masses were supposed to be something mostly made by Traditionalists to make fun of progressives?

    1. @Scott Smith – comment #17:
      This really is a piece on liturgical history–but who said liturgical history can’t be funny and serious at the same time? I was also surprised that clown ministries existed, but, as Rita described above, in the context of Mass, clowns invited Christological reflection; and, outside of the Liturgy, clowns put a completely different face on ministry…

      1. @Katharine E. Harmon – comment #19:

        This really is a piece on liturgical history

        Wow. Who knew? You could knock me down with a feather.

        but who said liturgical history can’t be funny and serious at the same time?

        Not so funny when it is serious.

        clowns put a completely different face on ministry…

        Now you are making fun 🙂

  9. I honestly think this is important enough that we should find a way to fund a Chair of Liturgical Studies for Clown Ministry at CUA. I think it would provide an excellent opportunity to research and discover the ministerial and spiritual impact of the victim clown.

  10. Traditionalist and liturgically conservative Catholic culture is a bit clownish. No light up antennae and foam bulbous noses, but a self-imposed uniformity in clothing, action, and lifestyle. It’s as if everyone has to dress according to a certain dress code, be seen with nose in missal, or (especially for the twentysomething set) be looking for a spouse when they could just be, well, young adults.

    RIta Ferrone (#5) quotes Henri Nouwen. As Rita writes, “Nouwen explores four ‘clownlike’ or ‘foolish’ elements in the spiritual life: being alone, treasuring emptiness, standing naked before God, and simply seeing things for what they are.” The question is whether or not a person has the courage to step out of the “clowniness”, the alienation, when alienation is understood. I am certainly not ready to step out of role.

    I also love Godspell, and have all the songs memorized. 😉

  11. Clowns are not my cup of tea. Ditto clown ministry. My friend who did clown ministry in the 80’s, did it mainly with teens, and on retreats and for children, not in liturgy. She also exercised a degree of restraint in costuming. Definitely Godspell. Compared to the onslaught of thrash and death metal subgenres at the time, it would be a welcome counterpoint to anger and aggression in suburban American youth culture of the time.

    I find it interesting that one or two commentators cannot enter into this discussion without employing caricature beyond that what I experience from the circus. The cynicism and anger of some believers directed at Things They Disagree With reminds me in some ways of the anger in the hateful music of thirty years ago.

    We could do a lot worse than clowns, believe me.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #23:

      I don’t see any issue with clowns on retreats or as some form of outreach with kids etc. I mean, it is a bit naff, but whatever works.

      But theorizing about it and including it in the liturgy seems to be a bad idea. It would ruin the fun of clowning around all dressed up if nothing else.

      1. @Scott Smith – comment #28:
        I might have leaned to agreeing with you on theorizing about it. Then I read this thread.

        The fact that clowns in any kind of ministry seem to dredge up a degree of strong feelings indicates to me there is indeed something that touches our spirituality with all this. In other words, if clowns were irrelevant, this would be another Sacrosanctum Concilium 73.b post with 2 comments. I always pay attention when passions are aroused. It may be less a matter of “theorizing,” or head stuff. It might merit reflection, for individuals who feel strongly one way or the other, and consideration of where our Church is at the moment.

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #32:

        I don’t know. That sounds like a great way of paying too much attention to dumb ideas.

        Just look at the way online newspapers craft stories to be click and comment bait. Matters meriting reflection do not figure highly.

      3. @Scott Smith – comment #44:
        Dumb idea, or difficult idea? After this comment posts, I’ll have as many comments here as you. Maybe that says something.

        I don’t read online newspapers, so I have no experience of that. I do accidentally catch network tv once in a while. This site is not similar to either.

      4. @Todd Flowerday – comment #45:

        What is says about me is that I enjoy discussing trivialities. But I already knew that about myself.

        Bertrand Russell’s quote that “There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge” is one of my personal favorites. I figure it is a reasonably harmless vice.

  12. Scott Smith : I thought these clown masses were supposed to be something mostly made by Traditionalists to make fun of progressives?

    Bingo. The whole “clown mass” meme has been an urban legend perpetuated by so called “traditionalists” to gasp at horrors over the “abuses” of Vatican II. The much ballyhooed video of such a mass was not one of a Catholic mass. Instead, I believe it was Episcopal.

    But like lots of urban legends it took on a life of its own as people swore their cousin’s college roomate’s sister’s boss’ nephew’s mother-in-law’s neighbor, knew someone who knew someone who saw a “clown mass” four states away sometime, whenever.

    For the record, I don’t find clowns creepy. I do, however, find mimes creeping and deeply annoying, but that’s a topic for another time and another forum.

  13. St Philip Neri, known as the Apostle of Rome, was known for his unconventional creative spirituality of joy. One hagiographer titled his work about him Mystic in Motley.

    Hugo Rahner, whose specialty was liturgy, theologized in the 60s about Man at Play. It has been a long time since I have read it, but I think he places liturgy in a category with playfulness, creativity, etc. as a superfluous activity with no immediate impact on basic human needs.

    IOW clowning has deeper roots in the tradition than we tend to think.

  14. I never attended a “clown mass,” nor did I have the desire to do so, but I did engage in some clown ministry in the early 90’s with a youth ministry team. We used to associate putting on the base white paint with entering into the death of Jesus. Once the white paint was on, we did not speak, but could only mime. We had worked up some Christian skits in pantomime for evangelization.

    I remember once we went to a park in clownface to do some skits and play some games. This is the funny/serious part: I kind of got attacked by some kids. Some really wanted me to speak, but when I wouldn’t, one of them pulled off my red nose and the others kind of started abusing me as well. It could have been a scene from Arrested Development. (I’m laughing about it now!) But I remember at the time having new insight into Christ’s passion because of what I experienced. At any time I could have lost it with those little buggers, pushed ’em off me a bit, said a few choice words and been on my way, but instead I chose to remain silent.

    I remained silent on our ride home with my nose and wig pulled off, a few scratches and my clothes a little disheveled. It gave me some time to think about what had just happened to me, and I thought maybe I had a smidgen of an insight as to how God felt when the beloved children turned on Jesus. No wonder he said, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.”

    I still don’t have any interest in seeing clowns in liturgy, but I do love them.

  15. This thread reminds me of a short film called “Parable” that was made by the Lutheran Council and shown at the NY World’s Fair in 1964-65. Without using any dialogue, it depicts a Christ-like character in a circus who is murdered and “resurrected” through the conversion of his killer. It reportedly influenced the author of “Godspell.” I saw it on retreat several times in high school in the mid-60s and found it quite moving. I hadn’t thought about “Parable” in many years, so this thread brought back a happy memory.

    1. @George Hayhoe – comment #30:
      George, I was thinking the same thing. That film must have been on the syllabus of most of my high school religion teachers in the early ’70s.. I can’t say it’s a “happy” memory for me — I think I wasn’t smart enough then to “get” the lack of words. But it’s certainly a very strong memory!

    2. @George Hayhoe – comment #30:
      George and Nuala, I remember that film too! Powerful images, made more affecting by the absence of words. A serious film. I had forgotten all about it. I think we were shown it in high school too. Wow, thanks for bringing back that memory! Here’s the wikipedia entry on it:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_(film)

      The entry says that the film is listed in the Library of Congress as an “historic film that helped to shape American culture.”

  16. When I was received into the Church (over 40 years ago) a Carmelite nun sat next to me at the Mass. I was quite in awe of this dark mysterious figure.

    She turned to me afterwards and said, “Young man, may I give you some advice?”

    “Of course, sister”

    “Remember this:
    “1. Love the Lord our God with your whole heart and soul.
    “2. Love your neighbour as you love yourself”

    She then did a little twirl and a curtsey. With a twinkle in her eye, she said, “The rest is Show Business”.

  17. Clown ministry is one thing. A clown mass is another. I found this entry by accident today and reading the comments I’m somewhat taken aback. I love Godspell. I go to folk Masses. I cannot imagine the lack of respect shown to our Lord by a clown Mass. Think of it – you died for your friends. You were murdered. He asks you to do something to remember him by – something serious and mysterious. He leaves you a gift. Then over the years you decide to add more pomp to it. Over the years, that pomp got in the way. Your friends simplified and reformed it. Then, they decide it’s a party, not a rememberance of your sacrifice. They dress up in an entirely different but equally pompous way. They take pride in their re-interpretation of the act of rememberance. They like their performance. They say people will come, it will be more relevant to put on makeup, hide my face, hide my hair, dress in light hearted ways to celebrate your gift. Because, after all the gift unburned us from the pain of sin and death. We should celebrate by laughing, singing, partying, hiding – hiding before the Lord. He will be pleased. Except the act of hiding to entertain and be entertained means that we are like the crowds being entertained in front of the Praetorium all over again. Is that what Mass is?

  18. I would be remiss not to mention my friend and colleague Peter Hesed who, along with Thomas Kavanaugh, composed a musical theater piece titled The Clown of God (WLP Publications). It is a contemporary retelling of the French legend of a juggler who offers the Christ Child the only gift he has–his talent. It’s a beautiful and moving work and has been performed in church settings, though not in liturgical settings.

  19. Rita #16: “These are passing trends.” I can assure you that the polka Mass is not a passing trend. Here in the northeast (and in other heavily Polish settled areas), this is the season of the Polish harvest festival, “Dozynki.” Most in my area and others that I know of, feature prominently on their advertisements, the “Polka Mass!” on Saturday night or Sunday. This trend shows no sign of passing away, it’s ‘traditional’ now.

    1. @John Kohanski – comment #38:
      Thanks, John. We’ll have to see how the other musical genres hold up over time as well. Will we have hip hop Masses enduring as the decades go by? I think it helps that there’s an ethnic identity sewn up in the Polka Mass that expatriots treasure as part of their heritage. I somehow doubt there are polka masses in Poland, but I could be wrong. Are there? Do you know?

  20. This context and history is all very interesting, and I’m grateful for it. Like Rita, I thought of “Godspell” right away, so I’m also grateful to her for making that connection.

    I can remember encountering what I can now, in retrospect, identify as “clown ministry” on retreats in the ’80s. There was even some clowning in the context of the Mass — as part of the homily, a skit performed to illustrate some aspect of the Gospels, IIRC. But (not having seen the legendary video) I’ve always assumed a “clown Mass” was something different – not just a brief appearance by a clown, something akin to a burst of liturgical dance, but a situation where the people praying the Mass, presider and/or congregation, were dressed as and acting as clowns throughout. That seems obviously objectionable to me, not because it’s lighthearted, but because it involves taking on a persona (e.g. “Bubbles”), and praying the Mass as someone other than yourself is playacting at what ought to be a thoroughly honest thing.

    To state the obvious, I think the very phrase “clown Mass” gets people’s dander up — even with no clear idea of what exactly is being described, or any evidence that it really happened — because what clowns do is present a travesty of human experience for heightened emotional effect, and while that can be very effective in certain kinds of prayer-and-reflection contexts, coupled with the Mass it sounds like mockery.

  21. I don’t think people “get” clowns anymore. I assume the tradition is very ancient, but I think the thread has been lost within the last generation or two. My own children have no experience of clowns and have never shown an attraction to them. They’ve internalized this statement from the original post: “clowns are creepy”. Somehow clowns have been reduced to scary-movie monsters.

    Having said that: I must admit that, not that many years ago, when my children were young enough to be in the target age window for the show, the Mr. Noodle characters on “Elmo’s World” on “Sesame Street” were among the pleasures that show offered to the parents of their child audience. Some first-rate clowning, it seemed to me. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched “Sesame Street”, but I hope the Mr. Noodle characters are still clowning. So maybe clowns haven’t completely lost their currency. Could it be that part of the appeal and challenge of clowning to adults is that it forces us to become more childlike, which from a discipleship point of view is not a bad thing?

  22. At the risk of immodesty by quoting myself: I had written in a previous comment:

    “Could it be that part of the appeal and challenge of clowning to adults is that it forces us to become more childlike, which from a discipleship point of view is not a bad thing?”

    … and now this morning, on the feast of Theresa of the Child Jesus, Virgin, I encounter this antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah:

    “Truly I say to you, unless you change your lives and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”

    … as well as this concluding prayer*:

    “God our Father,
    you have promised your kingdom
    to those who are willing to become like little children.
    Help us to follow the way of St. Theresa with confidence
    so that by her prayers
    we may come to know your eternal glory.
    Grant this through etc.”

    * I am giving here the “old translation”, as it is what appears in my breviary (the one-volume Christian Prayer) and so is what I’m actually praying today; and because, frankly, this translation does a better job of making the connection to the Gospel passage referenced in the canticle antiphon than the new translation does.

  23. There’s a great story about three priests who get taken to the circus – a Franciscan, a Dominican and a diocesan.

    They enjoy it immensely and comment to the ring master: “The head clown was fantastic. He kept the entire show running and he covered all the mistakes well too.”

    The ring master says “As a matter of fact, the head clown WAS a priest. Can you guess what kind of priest?”

    The Dominican says “Not one of ours: all our ex-priests become university dons.”

    The Franciscan: “Not one of ours; all ours go into social work.”

    The Diocesan: “Can’t be one of ours. All our clowns become bishops.”

  24. I am a clown and a devout Catholic. Full time I work as a human resources director for an international congregation of Catholic women. I am well regarded in the clowning/circus community and have attended many schools and conventions on the performance Art of clowning – won awards for my clowning performance and look.
    So I think I can speak with some position of “insidernes” on the subject of a clown Mass.
    Never heard of it.
    Our clowns don’t talk about it.
    We are more interested in something called clown ministry, where we can use our character to show some face of Jesus to others at nursing homes, vacation bible school or performing at retreats for those who may be marginalized ie developmentally different childten or adults.
    I have performed at numerous events for my archdiocese, however would never perform in the context of the Mass or in the sanctuary.
    A multipurpose room, a stage at a school, a comedy magic show with a message at a school sponsored carnival – these are appropriate venues for clowns.
    Now, my Protestant friends who are ministers do have puppets and clowning on a more liberal basis. However, they too have boundaries, and I have learned a lot from them.
    And yes, some clowns are creepy, but ones who are students of the Art devote significant time, resources, money and energy to being the one clown people go up to afterwards and say ” Hey, you are not creepy at all and you aren’t scary like the other clowns. Can I have my picture taken with you? My friends and family won’t believe I got this close to a clown.”
    To that I say, Thank you Jesus for giving me the gift to make people laugh and use me to deliver your message.
    i could go on, however I am not a theology guru; I do know, however, that sometimes children (and Adults) respond to simple messages that they can identify with rather than dissertations that fly over the heads of most.
    God Bless your little heart-
    Keith “Bobalouie” Karas

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