US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The unimportance of being earnest

| Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

But seriously, folks. After 30 years of hanging out in the Catholic world, I’m getting the sense that we take our Catholic selves way too seriously. From banishing people from the Communion line to expressing outrage over this movie or that book to announcing all the liturgical restrictions at weddings and funerals—the public proclamation of the church has somehow shifted from the Good News to the bad news. We seem caught up in what we can’t do instead of what we can do, what we have to do as opposed to what we choose to do. It seems like the Body of Christ has lost its funny bone.

But even the gospel writers were not adverse to tossing in a gag story once in a while. Take, for instance, the one about walking on the water. Peter asks, “Can I try it?” Jesus says, “Sure, go ahead.” Peter takes the plunge—literally. He heads straight for the bottom. When they finally drag him back into the boat, Jesus springs the punch line: “Hey, Simon, where was your faith?” Cue uproarious apostolic laughter. They obviously never let him forget that one. It’s 2,000 years later and we’re still talking about it.

I mean, I’m against the same things the church is against, but must we be so vehement? When I see Catholic protest groups ranting and raving about their issues at conferences or on the 6 o’clock news, I feel a little embarrassed. Couldn’t we tone it down a bit? Do Jews picket the deli because they sell pork loins? Do Mormons protest liquor stores? When’s the last time you saw a Seventh Day Adventist rage against Starbucks? Leave the heated rhetoric to Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.

I remember back when I was in seminary the movie Life of Brian came out. It was a Monty Python comedy about a guy, Brian, who was born in Bethlehem at the exact same time that Jesus was born, and spends the rest of his life being mistaken for the Messiah. It was absolutely hysterical.

Anyway, the bishops were outraged. They issued public statements condemning the movie. The result, of course, was that everybody went to see it, and it was a box office smash. Talk about free publicity. It was the same miscalculation by religious leaders that made Salman Rushdie a best-selling author and why certain works of art, most recently a crucified frog, get more press than they deserve.

Why do we Catholics always have to be so offended when somebody has a little fun at our expense? Aren’t we the king of the hill? Don’t we have the most marbles in our pile? Aren’t we the only remaining superpower religion in the free world? It’s like the pope’s been saying all along: We’ve got it all. Why should we sweat insults? Didn’t Jesus teach that we’re blessed when we’re insulted? Instead of getting all huffy about it, we should be grateful and thank our persecutors.

Speaking of persecutors, maybe we shouldn’t get so lathered up about the diabolical workings of the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, the TSA, the White House, WMDs, and whatever else the government and big business are doing to bring down the wrath o’ God on our poor little superpower society. After all, it was only 1,000 years ago that the Vatican was busy with the same kind of superpower politics.

And global warming? Let me fess up to the Styrofoam stormtroopers right now: It’s all my fault. I drive an SUV. I didn’t recycle the aluminum foil off my Thanksgiving turkey. And I’m going to wait for my round bulbs to burn out before I replace them with the curly ones. So blame me.

But let’s take it easy on the inflammatory rhetoric. We’re not going to win more folks to our cause by calling the Planned Parenthood gang “murderers.” They’re people just like you and me, only on the other side of the issues.

We should take pride in our religion, you say? Hey, last time I checked, pride was still on the list of the top seven sins.

Yeah, I know there is hysteria on both sides of the debate. But why do we have to have hysteria on our side? As good St. Teresa of Ávila, a doctor of the church, once wrote: “God preserve me from saintly people.”

I keep reading that the sacraments are under attack. Evidently marriage is being threatened by same sex couples getting, well, married. And the Eucharist is in danger of falling into the hands of those faithless pro-choice politicians. But aren’t all the sacraments getting hosed?

After all, Unitarians have been baptizing for years using two persons short of a trinitarian formula. And Mormons practice proxy baptisms, popping the souls of the departed into heaven from God-knows-where. In most hospitals and prayer meetings I’ve been to, anybody with a flask of Mazola is in the anointing business. And haven’t our separated brethren been ordaining without a license for a few centuries? And when it comes to calling down the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, those Assembly of God folks have it all over us.

I get annoyed at these “please turn off your cell phone” announcements before Mass. I mean, what are we dealing with here, a bunch of imbeciles? Don’t answer that. In my experience, the more we tell people not to do things, the more they do them. It goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. Need I mention Humanae Vitae?

I have an idea. Instead of getting our albs in a bunch over cell phones going off during Mass, what we ought to do is offer liturgical ringtones from our parish websites. So instead of “Crank That Soulja Boy” or T-Pain, you get “Tantum Ergo” or “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.” In many cases it would improve Mass considerably.

I suppose it could be worse. The Taliban does not allow any musical ringtones at all anywhere, much less the ones that play verses from the Qur’an. Offenders will be punished according to Sharia laws. And you know what that means. Cut off your Nokia.

But that’s just my point. We should be less like the Taliban and more like the Bahá’ís. You never hear them getting upset about anything. Or the Gay Rabbis for Jesus. Now there’s a group with something to complain about.

Vatican II theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, friend of future Pope Benedict XVI, once wrote that “the saints are never the kind of killjoy spinster aunts who go in for faultfinding and lack all sense of humor. . . . For humor is a mysterious but unmistakable charism.”

St. Philip Neri used to walk around wearing ridiculous clothes with half his beard shaved off as a practice of humility. The greater his reputation for holiness, the sillier he wanted to appear. When some people came from Poland to see the great saint, they found him listening to another priest reading to him from a joke book.

Did you ever see the Catholic Mass bloopers video clips on YouTube? Search “funny things that happen in church.” They are absolutely hysterical. When I first viewed one I laughed so hard I thought I was going to wet my cassock.

Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast from A Network for Grateful Living ( writes that the opportunities for gratitude embedded in our troubles might surprise us. The most difficult struggle is calling forth a “creative response,” he writes. “It will lead you to hidden blessings in even the most trying circumstances.”

The Bible says that we should “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:1). I’m not saying we should praise the Lord for getting run over by a bus, but maybe we should give thanks to God for getting thrown under the bus once in a while.

Take, for instance, this Sounding Board article that you’re reading right now. If you’ve hung on this far, you’re probably either amused or outraged. If you have a sense of humor, you’re no doubt aware that the point of this whole rant is to amuse you, that my tongue is never very far from my cheek. Nothing contained herein is going to challenge your faith. It’s probably not going to enlighten it either. We’re just having fun.

At the same time it’s designed to provoke a response: mirth from the mirthful, outrage from those who overflow with opprobrium. If you’re going to spend the rest of eternity cuddled up with all the faithful beholding the beatific vision, who would you rather bunk with?

My advice: The next time we celebrate the Chair of St. Peter, let’s put a whoopie cushion on it.


Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board & Feedback are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. Catholic subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board & Feedback—along with a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole—eventually appear in the pages of U.S. Catholic magazine.