VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI greeted thousands of clowns, acrobats, puppeteers and even a pair of lion cubs on Saturday as the circus came to town for an unusual papal performance.
Benedict clapped and watched amused as circus workers flipped, flopped, juggled and twisted before him in what the Vatican has called a historic audience to make street performers and other itinerant entertainers feel like they belong to the church.
Benedict, a known cat lover, paid particular attention to a pair of lion cubs that were brought up to him, stroking them and chatting with their trainers. At one point Benedict even bent down to caress one — not an easy feat given the 85-year-old pope has trouble with his knees and occasionally uses a cane.
Benedict acknowledged the sacrifices circus workers make to bring joy to young and old alike, traveling constantly and living on the margins of society. He noted they lack schools for their children or parish churches to call home. But he urged them to keep the faith.
"I hope that you can find, in the communities where you stay, people who are welcoming and available and able to care for your spiritual needs," Benedict said. He urged governments to better integrate itinerant entertainers in the social fabric.
A big top tent and carousel were mounted in St. Peter's Square to make the scene complete, and thousands of entertainers from a dozen countries filled a Vatican audience hall for the papal performance that featured acrobats and a puppet show.
Benedict has been entertained before by various circus troupes, but Vatican officials said Saturday's audience was unusual in that it involved so many different types of traveling performers from around the world, and was dedicated to them alone.
The event was organized by the Vatican office that looks out for the welfare of migrants, refugees, seamen as well as prostitutes and street children — people who by force or choice live without stable homes.
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