Sometimes it’s really hard for me to stay positive when I look at the condition our country is in. The federal government boldly persecutes Catholics and argues in court that nuns ought to be forced to violate their consciences. They make the case that a family who is being threatened with having their children snatched away from them by the government of Germany should be deported. Christians who don’t support the redefinition of marriage are told that they can’t be in business if they don’t want to participate in gay “weddings.” It’s a hostile world for faithful Christians.
But it’s nothing new.
Early in Church history, Christians stood out as different. They refused to worship the old pagan gods of Rome – refusing to even offer a pinch of incense to appease the emperor – and were persecuted for their faith. They were called cannibals (for the ate of the Flesh of the Son of Man and drank His Blood), they were called pagans and atheists (for they refused to honor and worship the Roman gods or the emperor), and they broke curfew when they went out in the dead of night to celebrate the Easter Vigil with bonfires and reading of Scriptures. They were lit as human torches and fed to wild animals and skinned alive and grilled to death and crucified and beheaded.
And yet, through all of this, they still grew exponentially.
The Christians pretty much faced a certain death if they were discovered, and yet they had something that I think we lack lately: joy!
They went singing to their deaths in the Circus. They loved their pagan neighbors, staying with them to nurse them when the plagues came along, decimating the populations. They assisted widows and orphans. They treated women like actual human beings instead of chattel.
And they did it all with a smile on their faces.
It is because of this very joy-in-the-midst-of-suffering that the Christian faith grew so quickly. People not only wanted the kind of sublime happiness and peace Christians seemed to have, but they also started to feel pity for these people who didn’t seem to be hurting anyone and were being put to death for what they believed.
But, again, the joy was key to this.
The Bible says that as Christians, we should be known by our love. And while Catholics (as a whole) do more charitable works than anyone else on the planet, I have to wonder if we’re missing out on opportunities to help people along in their own conversions by lacking in the kind of joy that the early Christians had as they suffered and died in the Circuses of Nero and Diocletian.
Yes, we have the Truth in full. Yes, it is guarded from error by the Holy Spirit. Yes, everyone should want to be Catholic. And, yes, we are really getting good at explaining this Truth in all forms of social media.
But how are we explaining it? Is it actually attractive to people who are outside the Faith? Are we attractive to people outside the faith?
“God save us from sour-faced saints!” prayed St. Teresa of Avila. I think modern Catholics, especially in the West, can learn something from this. We’re having our problems, to be sure, but they’re really such small ones when compared not only with the ancient Church’s sufferings, persecutions, and martyrdoms, but even with Christians of today’s non-Western cultures. A look at the news reveals churches being torn down in China, schoolgirls being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery in Nigeria, people being persecuted or sentenced to death for merely proclaiming they have become Christians.
So our trials here in America, while still troubling, are not nearly on the scale of those in other cultures. And yet we seem to lack joy.
I believe that unless we can find joy in our faith, and even joy in the Cross (as well as our little crosses), we will not win hearts for Christ and His Holy Church.
Image may not be everything, but it is something, especially to people who are immersed in the current culture of the West. And even if we proclaim the Truth boldly to everyone we meet, if we do this without that smile on our face – the smile that tells people that we’ve got something they want – it won’t do us much good. Sure, there will be some people who are analytical, who are willing to seek the Truth and accept it no matter what, but those people are the exception rather than the rule.
For most people in our current Western culture, something must be attractive as well as true. And the attractiveness might even count for more in the beginning.
How attractive are we making Christianity seem if we are presenting it as a list of rules and drudgery, rather than a life-changing encounter with Someone who loves us each individually? When we talk about the Faith and what it means to us, how do we discuss it? Do we discuss the necessities of how to be holy, or do we express the joy we found when we came to know that God cherishes us as if we were each the only person alive? When we advise our Sunday school kids on how to gain Heaven, do we say, “You must …” or present it as “When you love Someone, you want to …”
I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to getting bogged down in the details of my Faith and forgetting to find joy in it. I remember clearly when Nathan asked me if I was happy to be Catholic. “Of course!” I answered.
“Well, you don’t act like it. Maybe it’s what you’re reading online, but you just seem … angry. Definitely not happy.”
I took a good look at myself, what I’d been writing, what I’d been reading. I realized that I didn’t seem happy. I lacked joy.
I had to find it again, to remember what it was like to stand in my pew on my eighth birthday, waiting to receive Jesus for the first time in Holy Communion and weeping for joy, To do this, I had to remove more than a few blogs and news sites from my Bloglines list. The sites that seemed to make a habit of looking for reasons to be angry at the Church (and I’m talking mainly about Rad Trad sites that harped continuously about the lack of “True Catholicism” in the “Novus Ordo Church”) got deleted. The blogs that were filled with anger at this or that offense got deleted. The news sites that only seemed to bring bad news to me about the state of the world … gone.
Slowly I found that joy again. And I work hard to keep it. I occasionally go through my Twitter feed and do mass unfollows on anyone who is not joyful enough. I find that this step helps me stay focused on the positives, finding joy in my life as a Catholic.
Even more than keeping my own mind on the positive side of being Catholic, I have to also remember to show that side to people who are outside the Church. I can’t keep that kind of joy for myself! And even if I’m talking to people who are fellow Catholics, I have to keep in mind that I must be happy to be Catholic! Not everyone in the Church has been evangelized, even if they’ve received all the Sacraments. And if I am working on my Dominican charism of preaching the Faith for the salvation of souls, what good does it do to present things without the joy?
When I am teaching the middle school students, I work on teaching them the truths about the Faith without dumbing things down. Yet at the same time, I must also present it as something desirable! Most of the children I see at our parish don’t pray outside of Sunday Mass and grace before meals. There were only a handful of children who knew how to pray a Rosary. They see no value in these things, and their parents don’t think to instill in them the value of these trappings of the Faith. While I lament the lack of living out the Faith outside the walls of the parish buildings, at the same time, I want to present to the kids a Faith that has something they want.
I want to make them want the Catholic Church and all of her trappings! I pray that when I’m finished with my lessons, they see that I’m a happy person, and that my faith makes me so. I want them to see that, in spite of being different than most of the world by being faithfully Catholic, it’s a good thing. And I hope they can see that it’s far deeper than the idea of being different just for the sake of being different!
I think in the near future, things will get much harder for faithful Catholics in the West. Our culture has largely rejected Jesus and His Church, and anyone who takes a look at the abysmal state of our culture can see the disastrous results of that rejection. After all, rejecting God puts us in Hell.
I think there’s going to be a pruning, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI discussed in Faith and the Future (1969):
She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
These days are upon us. But we must still retain the joy that comes from knowing that our true hope is Christ, that our true home is Heaven, and that our faithfulness will be rewarded in the end.
And if we have that joy within us – if we allow it to shine through to others – the Church will once again grow in numbers. Because everyone will desire it!