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ROME – As the saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished.” It’s a sentiment with which Pope Francis and his top official for charitable activity, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, may have a special sensitivity right now.
Thinking he was doing something nice for the poor, Krajewski took them to the circus over the weekend and now finds himself facing a protest from an animal rights group, which believes such spectacles amount to human beings subjecting animals to “painful constraints” for our own amusement.
On Saturday, Krajewski organized an outing for more than 200 poor and marginalized persons at Rome, taking them to a performance of the Rony Roller circus, a famed spectacle in the Eternal City that features musical performances, clowns, trapeze artists, animal tamers, and jugglers. The invitation was extended in the name of Pope Francis.
The guest list for Saturday’s performance included refugees, homeless persons, inmates, families with children from Ukraine, Syria, Congo and Sudan, as well squatters from various occupied buildings in Rome, all accompanied by a number of volunteers, including Missionaries of Charity sisters of Mother Teresa.
The event was part of an ongoing effort by Krajewski to offer not just material aid to the poor, but also opportunities for relaxation and amusement. Over the summers, for instance, he’s used a van to transport small groups of homeless persons from the area around the Vatican to a nearby beach, offering them an afternoon of surf and pizza.
During Saturday’s performance, one highlight came when Krajewski volunteered to stretch out on a stage and allow an elephant to climb over him, the idea being to demonstrate how well-trained the massive pachyderm actually is.
“Making participation in this show possible is a way to give a few hours of serenity to those who face a hard life, and who need help to find hope,” Krajewski said in advance.
Less than 24 hours afterwards, Francis and Krajewski found themselves facing a complaint from the “International Organization for the Protection of Animals,” a non-governmental organization founded in Italy in 1981 which has long objected to the use of animals in circus performances.
“I’m sorry that the pope somehow is sponsoring a circus with animals,” said Massimo Comparotto, the organization’s president, in a statement on Sunday.
“The pontiff often has expressed the importance of a greater respect for nature, above all in the encyclical Laudato si’ of 2015,” Comparotto said. “This choice seems contradictory to his so-called ‘ecological magisterium.’”
“Behind the exercises of the circus performances can be hidden deprivation, mistreatment and suffering for the animals, who live in captivity, behind bars, with limited space available and constantly under stress,” he said.
“They’re animals forced into a life that’s against nature,” Comparotto said.
The statement said the organization has no problem with circuses with human performers, such as jugglers, clowns and acrobats, who, the statement said, “display human talent and not the painful constraints of sentient beings forced by humans to put on a show with the force of heavy training.”
At the same time, Comparotto complained that Pope Francis in the past has suggested that human life is more important than other animals.
“In 2016, he affirmed that facing an injured animal, one feels pity, not mercy,” Comparotto said. “Often he’s put love for animals in opposition to love for children, as if love were something limited, which can be exhausted.”
“He receives and blesses circus performers in the Vatican who keep animals in captivity and force them into the role of clowns,” Comparotto said. “In sum, this is a pope not exactly on the side of the animals.”
“Those who feel that life is sacred love all life, beyond species,” Comparotto said.
Over the years, circus performers have been frequent guests at Vatican events. During the Great Jubilee year of 2000 under Pope John Paul II, a special day for circus performers and traveling shows was among the last events on the jubilee calendar.
Pope Francis has also hosted circus performers in the Vatican, welcoming some 6,000 of them during the Jubilee of Mercy in 2016. In the same year, he also sponsored a special performance of the Rony Roller for 2,000 poor and homeless persons, which opened with a song by a Spanish vocalist who had once been homeless himself.