Last month the circus came to the Vatican. During Pope Francis’s weekly general audience, magicians, clowns and acrobats performed on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica, and managed to work the Holy Father into the act. A clown twisted balloons into the shape of a giant flower and presented it to the Pope, while a magician made a small table near Francis’s chair levitate. At one point, the Holy Father let a cockatoo perch on his hand.

Vatican Radio reported the Pope’s “unscripted enthusiasm” for the performance. “You are champions of beauty,” he told the circus folk. “You make beauty, and beauty is good for the soul … Beauty brings us closer to God, but behind this spectacle of beauty, how many hours of training there are! Go forward, keep it up!”

But not everyone shared Francis’s enthusiasm. The performers skin-tight costumes and the giant eyeballs that covered the breasts of some of the female acrobats raised eyebrows in Britain and America. reported that female performers “dressed as cats … did the splits and danced to cheesy music”. In response to the performance, one Twitter user wrote: “I am a married man and this picture is harmful to my state of grace.” Another decried the performance as a “mockery of the Chair of St Peter” (the performance took place on the feast of the Chair of St Peter). And the reporter for commented that the circus performance seemed “like a strange way to commemorate a Catholic feast day dedicated to the Pope’s authority and sacred duties”.

But Pope Francis likes the circus. During another performance in 2016, Francis cradled a lion cub, and that same year he arranged for 1,000 refugees, prisoners on parole and homeless people to attend a circus staged on the outskirts of Rome. And if recent history is any indication, he’s not the only papal fan of circus acts. Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI also welcomed circus performers to the Vatican. Even saints have got in on the act.

For decades acrobats, jugglers, magicians and other circus people have venerated St John Bosco as their patron. Time and again they have petitioned the Vatican to make it official, with a formal pronouncement by the pope naming Don Bosco (as he is popularly known) as the patron saint of circus performers. In 2002 Fr Silvio Mantelli, a priest and amateur magician, took the circus people’s case directly to John Paul II. As a gentle reminder of what he and his friends hoped for, Fr Mantelli presented the pontiff with a magic wand. It didn’t do the trick. Generally speaking, Rome is satisfied with letting the faithful adopt saints as their particular patrons. Only rarely will the pope make such a declaration formally.

John Bosco was the youngest son of a family of peasants who worked the fields outside the city of Turin in northern Italy. He was a bright, athletic boy with an engaging personality. Once, a small travelling circus pitched its tent near the Bosco family’s farm. After just one performance John was mesmerised by the skill and agility of the jugglers and acrobats. For the handful of days the circus remained in the area John spent all his spare time with the performers. They liked the boy, taught him a few tricks, and when he proved that he had talent, they showed him some of their more sophisticated techniques.

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