Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Joy of the Gospel

  Joy and mercy.  These two words sum up both the frequent homilies and speeches of Pope Francis as well as the content of his writings, above all his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).  Right now I would like to reflect on "joy".  I will take up "mercy" at another time,

   I was recently touring the western US by train and struck up an
interesting conversation with a young graduate student.  As we
moved from casual chatter to more serious discourse I let it be
known that I was a Catholic priest.  He let me know that he was
raised Catholic but wasn't so sure about the faith any more. We
talked about several teachings of the Church and I found that despite his doubts he was more well educated in matters of the faith than most people of his age.  When the subject of regular Mass attendance came up though I was surprised by what he said.  I don't remember his exact words but they were something like this, "There's not much fun in going to church."  I was taken aback by this not by way of taking offense but just because his words surprised me.  I told him that while I was 100% in favor of having fun that I did not go to Mass to have fun, that there were other motivations than fun for doing things.  He realized the truth of what I said and commented that nonetheless people of his generation often used "having fun" as a criterion for engaging themselves.

   That conversation has stayed with me and it deepened my realization that not only the Mass, but our faith itself while not being an occasion for fun, though I must admit that I have often had a great deal of fun at church gatherings, is an occasion for joy.

   What's the difference?  Fun is basically about having a good time. Nothing wrong with that. But joy is something deeper.  For me it is the deep abiding satisfaction and peace of mind and heart that comes from knowing that one's belief and actions, even though they be difficult and require sacrifice, give meaning to my life.   The ultimate source of joy for me is my faith in Jesus Christ.  Apart from religion I believe that there is a joy that comes from serving one's country or working for a great cause. There is joy in a good marriage even if there are many difficult moments as well. The same can be said for being a parent even though at any given moment a parent may doubt that.  There is certainly joy for me in being a priest and a Franciscan friar.

   With the news that we have heard recently of Christians being persecuted in Iraq, Syria and other places I think it is important to embrace the true meaning of joy.  In the Gospel text from Matthew this Sunday Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and that they too, and we today must take up the cross everyday to follow Him. (See Matt. 16:21-27).  Our faith does indeed give me and countless others cause for putting a big smile on our faces.  Moments of deep spiritual encounter with the Lord can do that.  Faith, however, is not just about feeling good.   Many today look to religion to make them feel good.  Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes.  What our faith in Jesus give us however is more than feel good moments.  It gives us the realization that when hardship and suffering and even death confront us that we have something that can take us through suffering and death to life, not only to life on the other side of the grave, but to a fullness and richness of life while on this earth because of that faith.

   At that level faith is something to live for, to be willing to die for, and it is the cause for joy.