Joy to the World

Kathryn Jean Lopez recently hit upon an essential truth underlying the world’s continuing fascination with Pope Francis:  “People see a man of joy.  And they want something of it, they want to follow.”

A man of joy … it’s evident in almost every photograph!  But his is not merely an optimistic demeanor.  Nor is it a calculated display put on for strategic purposes.

No, what the world is witnessing is the real joy of a missionary disciple.  His engaging, at times playful, interaction with people expresses a profound faith conviction, namely, that salvation has been wrought for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The appropriation of that truth is the source of his joy, and of the peace that characterizes this time of year.  As he made clear in one of his (delightful) daily homilies:  “this joy is true peace,” not something quietly stoic or tranquilly blasé; no, he says, “Christian peace is a joyful peace, because our Lord is joyful.”

Real joy, which comes from experiencing the mercy of God, cannot ever be taken away, no matter what happens to us or around us.  That’s the joy people want and need.  That’s a contagious joy that draws record numbers of people to look upon and listen to this pope.

book-coverJoy is Pope Francis’ message, one he shares endearingly in person and now enduringly in words.  His first solo document –Evangelii gaudiumfocuses on it, pleads for more of it, and exhorts us all to share it because “the joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (no 1.).

Likened to another “I Have a Dream” speech, the papal text offers inspirational reading in this Christmas season, and not just for Catholics.  It discloses the key not only to the pope’s personality, but also to the work of evangelization, a task heretofore impeded and still threatened by a lack of joy in the Church and in the world.

Whatever be the “bold new vision” of this pontificate, or the theological tensions inherent in the text, the core of Pope Francis’ message, to the Church and through it to the world, can be encapsulated in one word:  SMILE!

But how many times, instead, have we encountered a religious educator, deacon, or priest with a “bad face”?!  Serious need not mean somber; the latter look is hardly engaging.  Formal does not mean dour; the latter sound can be downright depressing.

In his exhortation, the pope describes this all-too-common look and sound with characteristic wit:  “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” (no. 6).  “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” (no. 10.)  From “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church” comes a “tomb psychology” that “slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum” (no. 83).  The lack of joy leads to a pessimistic attitude, which reveals itself in the look of “sourpusses” (no. 85).

Put simply, Church personnel who don’t smile while they work will be hard-pressed to convey “good news.”  Without showing an appreciation for the beauty of the faith, they cannot “radiate light and communicate life” as they are called to do (no. 83).

In next week’s post, we’ll examine the pope’s timely instruction on how all of us can have the joy we desire, and why it’s essential to the message we believe and proclaim.

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