When a news reporter in any area of the media receives an assignment, he or she never knows the outcome. Generally, it’s a routine story. However, it may become a prize-winning “big story.” Sometimes it stirs up controversy. Occasionally, it becomes a memorable event.
All reporters can recall assignments that became never-to-be-forgotten experiences. In my more than 40 years of reporting, several assignments quickly come to mind, including a meeting with the cardinal-bishop of Palermo, Italy, who was in Milwaukee for Festa Italiana; an interview with the bishop of Galway, Ireland, at Irish Fest; flying with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels in July 1959 and a special Mass for students at St. Agnes School, Butler.
The Mass is unforgettable for the controversy my reporting ignited.
What refreshed my memory of that event some 29 years ago was the recent obituary of Fr. Edward Hussli.
The Mass was planned by St. Agnes students and teachers as a culmination of Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 1984. The school informed the Catholic Herald of the event and I was assigned to cover it on Friday, Feb. 3.
What made it “special” was the theme: “Fools for Christ … with love, life and vitality.” What made it unforgettable was the uproar that followed. A review of the Catholic Herald files reminded me of the details.
Fr. Hussli, associate pastor of St. Agnes, celebrated the Mass dressed in a colorful clown costume, complete with cone-shaped hat and face makeup. Enacting Scripture readings were 13 clown-clad sixth-and seventh-grade girls who assisted Fr. Hussli at the altar. A Catholic Herald front page photo accompanied the descriptive report the following week.
A “clown” liturgy may sound sacrilegious but for some 60 parents and 400 K-8 pupils at St. Agnes, it was a “moving, uplifting, spiritual and colorful” way to conclude Catholic Schools Week.
At the beginning of Mass, Fr. Hussli told the assembly, “We are to be clowns to uplift those down in the mouth … to change frowns into smiles.”
In his homily, Fr. Hussli said, “We are to be clowns … go out to others and love. The clown is the symbol of love. The job of the clown is to help people come alive. It’s been said that priests, nuns, religious are fools for Christ. We’re all fools for Christ.
“Just like Jesus, a clown never gives up. Jesus died on the cross for us. He asks us to give ourselves to each other. Let us all be clowns for the Lord.”
The “altar girls” enacted two readings: describing how it’s easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God and the story of the Good Samaritan. Prayers of petition were offered for all “sad people.”
At the end of Mass, Fr. Hussli proclaimed Jesus as “the biggest fool of all … to many it seemed foolish to die on the cross. But he fooled the world again three days later.”
Assisting in the planning was Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Adele Thibaudeau, a teacher of religion and pantomime at the Academy of Our Lady, Chicago.
Comments of those who attended and from readers ranged from complimentary to irate. The mother of a participating clown said, “I loved it,” suggesting that it would be nice to include a similar celebration in a Sunday liturgy to get more adults involved.
A father described it as “different … a new twist to the celebration of Mass … it certainly had the attention” of the kids.
A seventh-grader agreed that the expressive liturgy “shows we do love God but in a more lively way. It brings life to liturgy … it’s supposed to be a celebration. This liturgy will be the best memory of this (Catholic Schools) week.”
In the weeks following the report, the Catholic Herald published more than 30 – mostly critical – letters to the editor concerning the event.
In his regular Herald of Hope column, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland wrote it was inappropriate to celebrate Mass dressed as a clown.
Writing on the topic “Celebrating the Eucharist,” he said, “I personally find that clowns could so easily deflect our attention from the full meaning of Eucharist, even for our children and are simply an inadequate symbol of the reality. We must ‘celebrate’ (the Mass) but not in frivolity.”
Readers complained that:
“Jesus would be aghast at the sight of those clowns.”
“The Mass was more entertainment than teaching the Word of God.”
“Liturgy should convey a feeling of reverence which this liturgy lacked.”
“The church should be protected from revelry. I was appalled how a pastor of a church could condone a Mass with a priest dressed as a clown.”
“It is sad that such desecration occurred and sadder that you published it.”
“Christ never hid behind a painted face, nor did he instruct his Apostles to do so by sensationalism. You owe your subscribers an apology.”
A St. Agnes parishioner was shocked and scandalized. “Whoever expected our church to be turned into a three-ring circus? Even our non-Catholic friends have expressed shock and disappointment.”
A high school freshman could not believe “that such a shocking spectacle could take place in a holy institution.”
Among supportive readers, a letter writer congratulated the Catholic Herald for its “excellent coverage of the liturgy celebrating Catholic Schools Week. As a parent of one of the little clowns who assisted around the altar, I thank God for the opportunity for her to feel God’s love for her and her peers. I thank God for Fr. Hussli who was willing to take the risk of being ‘crucified’ for the love of God and the children he so ably serves.”
Fr. Hussli, in a letter to the editor, said, “Hugs and kisses to all the beautiful people who supported me during the controversy over the ‘clown liturgy.’ May the Lord smile on those people who did not support me.”
Fr. Hussli died Nov. 18, 2012, at age 82 at his home in Clam Lake. Born in Beaver Dam, he attended St. Peter Grade School and Beaver Dam High School. He served in the U.S. Navy, attended UW-Madison and worked as a physical therapist.
In 1958, he joined the Cistercian Brothers Monastery at Our Lady of Spring Bank in Okauchee. Subsequently, he studied for priesthood and was ordained for the Cistercians at Our Lady of Spring Bank Abbey on Aug. 24, 1967 and was incardinated into the Milwaukee Archdiocese on Jan. 1, 1975.
In addition to St. Agnes, he served at Presentation Parish, North Fond du Lac; St. Mary, Waukesha; St. Nicholas, Milwaukee; St. Edward, Racine; Our Lady of Good Hope, Milwaukee; Holy Family, Reeseville, with mission of St. Columbkille, Elba, from where he retired in 1998. He then moved to Clam Lake and continued to serve as a regular help-out priest in the Superior Diocese.
A memorial Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Dec. 15 at St. Katharine Drexel Church, Beaver Dam, with Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki presiding. May he rest in peace!
(Horn, a retired Catholic Herald reporter, is a member of St. Roman Church, Milwaukee.)