Pope Benedict XVI greeted thousands of clowns, acrobats, puppeteers and even a pair of lion cubs today as the circus came to town for an unusual papal performance.
Benedict clapped and watched with amusement as circus workers flipped, flopped, juggled and twisted before him in what the Vatican has called an historic audience to make street performers feel like they belong to the church.
The 85-year-old, 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.
Benedict acknowledged the sacrifices circus workers make to bring joy to young and old alike, travelling 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.