Monday, May 05, 2014

On Catholic cheerfulness

Many years ago about ten years after becoming a Catholic I was involved for several years as a cooperator in Opus Dei, and used to attend evenings of recollection in Durham, as well as retreats. One virtrue the work seeks to cultivate in its members is the virtue of cheerfulness. St. Josemaria Escriva did this as well. And my dear confessor in the work, Fr. Deogratias Rosales (Fr. "Deo" for short) was a living embodiment of this virtue. It was contagious. He could be very serious and grave during some of his meditations, but he was nearly always smiling radiantly, even after driving all the way from Washington, D.C. in order to meet with us.

Cheerfulness is a Christian virtue. It's also a fruit of the spirit if we see it as a kindred of joy (Gal. 5:22-23). It is not, however, something superficial, and it certainly is not the same thing as giddiness. Joy can coexist with a certain gravity, and even pain. So can cheerfulness.

On Catholic Radio the other day, I heard a priest counsel his listeners to exhibit the joy of their salvation by smiling when they come to Mass. He had just been describing the often dour faces of so many parishioners when they come to receive the Body of Christ during Holy Communion. Do people realize they're coming to meet the Bridegroom of the Church in the most intimate act of union this side of heaven, he asked. Come, people: SMILE. Look alive. Look happy. Express the joy of your salvation.

On the one hand, I understand this sentiment. In one sense this is what Opus Dei was seeking to cultivate in its members; and I recognize the natural cheerfulness and joy that accompany (and should accompany) the Christian life.

On the other hand, this priest's remarks also recalls some criticisms I have heard by Protestant evangelicals of Catholic Masses (and, I confess, one hears similar criticisms by charismatic Catholics of what they witness in many Catholic Masses). Look at the peoples' faces, they say. There's no joy. People are so serious and lacking in expression.

Now I know all about the criticisms of "sacramentalized pagans" filling the pews of Catholic churches. I myself have made such criticisms. When people are simply "going-through-the-motions" without any interior affirmation of the act in which they are participating, there is certainly something wrong. But that's precisely the point, isn't it: how does one judge an interior act? Must a soul be smiling, raising his hands during the Eucharistic prayer, or expressing his interior sentiments in some external way in order to have genuine faith in God or love and gratitude for Christ's oblation of Himself in the Sacrifice of the Mass?

Of course not. Furthermore, as I have said before in my posts, smiles may not even be the most appropriate response to assisting (participating) at Mass. When we consider that we are there brought to the foot of the crucifix, to the alter of Sacrifice itself, a serious demeanor may in fact be more appropriate than the hyped-up responses one sometimes witnesses in non-Catholic (and more increasingly in some Catholic) church services.

I am listening to J.S. Bach's St. Matthew's Passion as I write, and it would not occur to me to smile or laugh in response to the profound choral representation of Christ's suffering, death, and sacrifice. This doesn't mean one lacks joy, or even a certain interior cheerfulness, but there are times and places where one thing is fitting, and another is not.

Related (updated 05/10/2014): I was reminded of the post above when recently reading the following account of Fra Modestino Fucci (1917-2011) recollecting his experience of "Serving the Holy Mass of Padre Pio" (The Shield of Faith, May 1, 2014):
I would watch and observe Padre Pio closely every time, from the moment he left his cell at dawn to celebrate Mass. I would see him in a state of suffering and anxiety. He seemed restless. As soon as he reached the sacristy where he put on the sacred vestments, I had the impression that already he was no longer aware of what went on around him.

He was totally absorbed and conscious of what he was about the fulfill. His face which was of normal color became frighteningly pale when he put on the amice. From that moment onwards he paid no more attention to anyone. Clothed in the sacred vestments he made his way to the altar. Even though I walked ahead of him, I was aware that his gait became more dragging, his face sorrowful. He seemed to stoop always more, as if, I thought, crushed beneath the weight of a gigantic invisible cross. Read more >>
This is not the stuff of "happy clappy" giddiness that Msgr. Ronald Knox called Enthusiasm.

1 comment:

Michael Ortiz said...

Spot on.

The cheerfulness we seek is not physiological but spiritual.

Smiling at Holy Communion? Well, inwardly joyful, grateful, yes. And full of solemn awe, too, at what Our Lord does for us.