The Clown and the Fire: Just Blowing Smoke?

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Elected Pope Benedict XVI

I am notorious for ambitious reading.  Thus, I have about seven books going right now.  One of the books is Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI.  Not surprisingly, I haven’t moved beyond the Introduction.  But that is okay, because it contains much for the mind to chomp on.  And mind-chomping takes time.

One of Cardinal Ratzinger’s points stood out to me as quite striking, both because I do ministry, and because I consider myself a faithful Catholic.  If you fall into one of these categories, you may also take interest in his line of thinking.  Cardinal Ratzinger relays an allegory of Kierkegaard’s – that of the clown, the burning circus, and ultimately, the burning village.  He says:

“According to this story, a traveling circus in Denmark caught fire.  The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself.  The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out.  But the villagers took the clown’s shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried.  The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get people to be serious, to make it clear to them that this was no stunt, that he was not pretending but was in bitter earnest, that there really was a fire.  His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought he was playing his part splendidly — until finally the fire did engulf the village; it was too late for help, and both circus and village were burned to the ground.” (Introduction to Christianity; 39-40)

Cardinal Ratzinger goes on to explain the ties between the story and the way modern society disregards the message of theologians (or, for our purposes, we could expand it to represent the message of all faithful Catholics).  The disregard results not from ridiculous clothing or makeup as with the clown, but from the common mentality that religion is in fact just that, religion.  It has “little or nothing to do with reality” (40).  But, Cardinal Ratzinger believes the illustration might be a bit too simplistic.

It seems to only highlight that the faithful Catholic has perfect knowledge of the impending fire, and the masses are content with ignorance, which ultimately leads to demise.

I’ve found myself adopting such an attitude with regard to the teens in our Youth Ministry program quite often.  It goes something like this (maybe you can relate), “I am brilliant and know all things Catholic.  Look at these dummies in the throng who won’t listen to what I have to say.  Clearly, I must devise a new method, utilize the newest medium, or utter the latest lingo, in order to break through their ignorant – and quite sinful – bliss.”

The constant push on my part involves finding new methods, new avenues, and new forms for communicating the Splendor of Truth that is our Catholic faith.  While this pursuit is relentless and necessary – though constantly illustrating its limitations – there must be something more.  Does my position, a position that is easily adopted in any educational arena, take into account all of the factors here?

It seems to examine the position of the many (those outside of myself), while failing to peer into my situation – my own heart, the heart of the educator, the faithful Catholic.  Cardinal Ratzinger hit on this point and stopped my pursuit of a perfect method dead in its tracks.  His point calls for an examination of conscience:

“In the strangeness of theology’s aims to the men of our time, he who takes his calling seriously will clearly recognize not only the difficulty of the task of interpretation but also the insecurity of his own faith, the oppressive power of unbelief in the midst of his own will to believe.  Thus anyone today who makes an honest effort to give an account of the Christian faith to himself and to others must learn to see that he is not just someone in fancy dress who need only change his clothes in order to be able to impart his teaching successfully.  Rather will he have to understand that his situation is by no means so different from that of others as he may have thought at the start.” (Introduction to Christianity; 41-42)

Hold up.  His message here is for all who seriously consider the Catholic Christian calling.  He’s saying the issue here is bigger than the ignorance of the multitude, which tunes out the brilliant Catholic, and more than the need to “keep up” with new methods, mediums, and adoption of “secular vocabulary or a demythologized Christianity” (Introduction to Christianity; 41).

Cardinal Ratzinger’s examination of conscience, then, calls us to take into account all of the factors present in this modern back-and-forth between believers and non-believers.

The truth is, I have been thrust into the same fragile, empty world as everyone else.  And the scum of the secularized, rationalistic, utilitarian society wraps itself around my skin so tightly that a good, holy hose-down can’t get it all off at once.  In his examination of the modern religious man, Cardinal Ratzinger clearly expresses the evident truth of this man’s position, one that is “by no means so different from that of others as he may have thought from the start.”  As you examine your own situation, as compared with the modern mindset, you may find quite a few similarities clinging like plastic wrap to your mind:

  • The constant desire to be somebody, to make a name for yourself.
  • Fear of being replaced.
  • Emphasis on constant productivity.
  • Suffocation of true desires because of fear.
  • Desire for money, power and pleasure.
  • Falling into the mentality taught from a young age, to check boxes, memorize what you need to, and just get by.
  • Fear to display the faith publicly.
  • Doubt from time-to-time in a personal God.

We could go on and on.  The examples remind us that we are not at all perfect, or “high and mighty know-it-alls”.  We are as fragile as the next guy, and as influenced as the multitude.  And, this is a good recognition, as it provides a nice starting point for dialogue – what is it that we truly want from life?  Does the modern mentality satisfy?

The answers to these questions seem to be “no” and that “no” ought to propel me to a real, substantial answer.  And, it should propel me more and more – or maybe better said, more and more of me/my life – to conversion.  Ongoing conversion is this process by which all the fragile, and scum-covered parts of my being converge, come together, and are transformed in a relationship with Christ.

In Kierkegaard’s allegory, the townspeople believed the clown was blowing smoke and putting on a good act.  Can we move beyond this position?  Certainly a change of costume won’t cut it.  A deeper examination reveals a starting point for dialogue, and the need for conversion and a true education of the human heart – an education rooted deeply in the relationship with Christ.


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About the Author

Brad is the Director of Youth Ministry for the growing youth program at St. Gertrude Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is actively involved in planning, leading worship for, and speaking at retreats and youth events in the Cincinnati area. He received his BA in English and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Following his graduation in 2008, he spent a year teaching English in Denver at Bishop Machebeuf High School. Brad and his wife Katie spend much of the day chasing around their 18 month old daughter. They are expecting their second child in October. In his spare time, Brad enjoys reading classic pieces of literature, writing, playing sports, listening to classic rock, and thinking about how funny he thinks he is.

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