Some struck a softer tone.
“Surely there is no structure, circus or zoo that can keep wild animals in optimal conditions, as they are by nature wild,” said Antonino Morabito of Legambiente, Italy’s biggest environmental association.
“But the social message of the pope didn’t mean to address this specific problem,” Mr. Morabito said. “At least that is my impression.”
The free show, described as the “Solidarity Circus,” was arranged by the Vatican’s charity office, known as the almoner, after the pope saw circus performers at one of his general hearings. The Vatican said in a statement that the tickets to the Medrano Circus were intended as an “encouragement to overcome the harshness and difficulties in life that so often seem too big and impossible to overcome.”
The neediest will also receive a box meal at the end of the show, and outside the circus tent a mobile medical clinic will offer help with routine health problems, the Vatican said.
The office of the almoner traditionally cares for the weak. Among its recent initiatives are showers and barber shops for the poor near the Vatican, and a private tour of the Sistine Chapel. Last November, it hosted a gourmet meal for the needy at the Vatican.
The Vatican said the invitation to the circus was in line with its mission, and the Medrano Circus echoed its message. It also defended its treatment of animals.
“We respect everyone’s ideas, but the law allows us to keep the animals under strict guidelines that we carefully follow,” said Salvatore Mendola, a manager of the circus. “We care for animals and take excellent care of them.”
Mr. Mendola said that Medrano’s animals were examined by the health authorities upon arrival in every Italian city.
He also said the circus had made changes after a 2016 court case that involved animal mistreatment. The court, in the northern city of Padua, imposed an eight-month suspended sentence on the circus’s former manager in that case. An appeal is pending.
“The circus is a show that brings happiness and beauty to everyone,” Mr. Mendola said. “We — and I think also the pope — only want to offer that to those who don’t have the means to afford the ticket.”