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13/3/2014 - France - Priest and Clown, Faith and Illusion: the experience of Fr Federspiel

(ANS - Paris) – Can you be a priest and a clown at the same time? This is the question that faced Fr Daniel Federspiel, Provincial of France- Belgium South. He uses his skill as a mimic and a circus clown as part of his apostolate.

When he was young, Daniel was very shy, but fell in love with the theatre. In that context he soon learned to play the clown. Before he entered the novitiate, he thought that religious life and playing the clown were mutually irreconcilable so he gave up his humorous acts and magic tricks.

But in the novitiate he made a discovery: "One day I came across a book where it said that illusionists have a patron saint called St. John Bosco. I decided  immediately to talk to the Master of Novices about it. He told me: 'It's a pity you have given up everything, you should continue.'" Daniel took up his old passion, practising with his companions in the community and in large gatherings. When the time came for his ordination, he met Cardinal Albert Decourtray, then Archbishop of Lyons.

Will you continue to act as a clown when you are ordained?” the Cardinal asked. “I don’t know. You tell me,”  the young Salesian answered. “Let’s get on with the ceremony” was the Cardinal’s only response. Then, during the ceremony, to the surprise of all, the Cardinal said, “I am sending you as a clown among the priests and as a priest among the clowns!”

At that time, Fr Federspiel was acting as a clown, but he was not really a clown. He was sent to Nice and there he resolved to learn how to become a proper clown. He was invited by a Salesian to join a club of illusionists. There he got to know Guido Giacomelli, a professional clown, now 74 years old, who had no children and had lost his colleague. Fr Federspiel became his student for six years."He taught me to see the world as a clown,” said Fr Federspiel.“Nobody is born a clown, you have to become one.”

"The clown is a figure of the Gospel,” he adds. “Being a clown is a way to absorb what is going on in the world, to assimilate and transform it into joy. There is something of Christ in what the clown does. He tries to take the suffering of others and to transform it gradually into joy, as in the resurrection. He makes a poem, something beautiful, out of what is weak, delicate and poor… Where others see problems and failure ... the clown sees hope."

It might look like magic but Fr Federspiel disagrees: "No! Magic makes people believe in a strange power. But illusion is similar to belief in God.  Something appears to be true, but at the same time the truth is not revealed. It remains hidden. An illusion is like faith in the sense that we believe we have discovered where God is, but he is always beyond our understanding."

A more detailed version of this article is available in French on the website of the Salesian magazine Don Bosco Aujourd’hui.

Published 13/03/2014

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