“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.