ROMEInside a large white tent on the outskirts of Rome, clergy and volunteers shared a laugh with the poor, the homeless, refugees, low-income families and a group of prisoners, all gathered for an evening at the circus sponsored by the Vatican.

“Let’s all clap for Pope Francis!” said Pippo Baudo, the honored guest at the event – one of the country’s most celebrated TV personalities, more or less the Italian equivalent of Johnny Carson – in opening remarks, eliciting a lusty cheer from the crowd.

There was nothing if not enthusiasm for the pontiff among the 2,100 people on hand, summoned for a free night at the circus by the Office of Papal Charities. All permanent deacons in Rome were called to invite the poor or lonely and escort them with their own cars to the Medrano Circus, in Saxa Rubra, about a 30-minute drive from the city center

It’s an opportunity to “ease – even if only for a minute, an evening – our daily difficulties,” continued Baudo, affectionately called ‘SuperPippo’ by Italians.

“Young and old, of any ethnicity, sex and religion, we are all human beings!” said Barduo, now 81, the same age as Francis himself.

Nuns of the Missionaries of Charity held up their phones and chuckled at the gags onstage with groups of young immigrant men and women. That seemed entirely fitting, since it was Saint Teresa of Calcutta who famously said, “Peace begins with a smile.”

Cardinals and beggars, volunteers and refugees pray before the show. (Credit: Federico Manzoni.)

The event started off with a prayer by the Papal Almoner, Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski.

“(Pope Francis) embraces all of you,” he said to the cheering crowd. “Pray, everyone as they can, and us Christians in the way taught to us by Jesus many times.”

The Medrano Circus, owned by the Casartelli family, is celebrating its 150th anniversary and jumped at the opportunity to work with the Vatican on this cause. The entrepreneur Fabrizio Grandi and the Casartelli family call the initiative “Solidarity Circus,” which will continue every Thursday of January for the pope’s poor.

“In Rome I saw lots, too much poverty that wasn’t there before,” said Grandi.

More than 7,500 people in Rome live in extreme poverty, of which only 45 percent are Italian, with a grand total of 16 thousand homeless in the capital, according to a November 2017 study by Caritas Rome.

Looking at the crowd Thursday night, one couldn’t help noticing the nature of “encounter” about the event, with children of different ethnicities and cultures playing together and old Roman ladies sharing a laugh with women draped in hijabs.

Young migrants share a laugh during break. (Credit: Federico Manzoni.)

“I think tonight’s show, if not taken within the context of everything else that we do, could be seen as something strange and even useless,” said Father Galantino, the Secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference (Cei), while speaking reporters.

“But this must be put in the much wider context, that of integral attention to the human person,” he said.

It’s true that this is not the first such initiative that Francis has encouraged for the poor and marginalized of Rome. In March 2015, the pope invited a similar group of people to have a private visit to the Sistine Chapel, and on the most recent World Day of the Poor he opened the doors of the Vatican to a large crowd of families and individuals for lunch.

“People who perform in the circus create beauty, and this is good for the soul,” said Francis during a general audience in 2016. Just like the Sistine Chapel, the circus is a manifestation of beauty, which, in the pope’s perspective, is a helpful tool when it comes to helping, and even elevating, those who rarely have an opportunity to experience something beautiful, not to mention downright fun.

Laughter and beauty were the unifying factors during the show. A clown in pink shorts farting noisily in the direction of his assistant drew chuckles even from the most high-ranking clerics, while no one could resist ‘uuuing’ and ‘aaahing’ before the elegant beauty of giraffes or the stunning performance of the acrobats.

Fra’ Francesco, a Franciscan friar who works with underprivileged kids in Rome, praised the event as a rare chance for them to lay back and have fun, an opportunity – he specified – that “is not always easy to find.”

For the friar, it represents a unique occasion for those who are marginalized and socially excluded.

“In my case, many of them have very difficult life stories and this offers them a moment when they can feel like everybody else,” he said.

The second half of the event brought in people from the crowd on stage to play tricks, pet animals and perform activities. One of them involved four men, from different cultures and backgrounds, being drawn from the crowd and made to lean on one another so that only together they could keep balance. Everyone laughed gleefully when they all tumbled into an entangled pile.

“Pope Francis always says, whose face do we see in poor people?” asked an elderly nun who works with the poor in the outskirts of Rome. “Jesus!” she answered herself, “And how must he be served? … with Love.”

Outside of the tent, stalls offered an alternative to the typically overpriced circus assortments. Stacks of juice, dried food and even Panettone (a typical Italian holiday treat) were given out for free to the visitors. There was also a mobile clinic to supply any support and medical attention.

“I would say mainly (people) take the opportunity to see the show and then ask for help or a quick diagnosis and even medicine that we brought,” said Doctor Paolo Silli to local reporters.

A circus performer and her parrots. (Credit: Federico Manzoni.)

Still, the event did not avoid drawing some blowback from animal activist groups. The Italian National Entity for the Protection of Animals (ENPA) released a statement criticizing the circus as “a place of suffering where other creatures are exploited,” and calling the pope to “turn his merciful and charitable gaze toward our smaller brothers.”

In the letter, signed by the president Carla Rocchi, the organization invited the pope to imitate the teachings of St. Francis, whose name he took.

“We ask ourselves with wonder, Holiness, how Your Magisterium can be combined with the constant, repeated and never diminished inattention that the Chair of St. Peter has for animals.”

In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere delle Sera, Brian Casartelli, part of the seventh generation to work in the circus founded in 1864, defended the event form the critics by stating that “animals are our life” and that veterinarians check them daily.

“Only those who live in the circus can understand this, but it’s like living in a big farm. In a big farm, you wake up in the morning and you work with the cow, with the sheep, with the horses. For us it’s the same thing, only that instead of having my dog for example, I have my elephant.”

“I treat him as if he were my child, because I am responsible for my animal. The best thing about the world of the circus is that you never abandon your animal. If I have a horse, he stays with me his whole life,” Casartelli said.

A banner at the circus reads: ‘With Pope Francis for a Better World.’ (Credit: Federico Manzoni.)

Despite the inevitable criticisms, the overall atmosphere at the Medrano Circus was one of joy and fun.

Bellissimo! Thank God and thank Pope Francis” said a Polish priest, enthusiastically talking about the show as he exited the circus. At the train station nearby, a homeless man sang the closing song of the show and danced cheerfully while hopping on a train directed back to Rome and to a life without the glitters and gimmicks of the circus.

“The greatest spectacle after the Big Bang is us, you and me!” he rang loudly, singing the refrain, before pirouetting into the train and behind the sliding doors.