I converted to Catholicism during a season of struggle in my life. My parents were sick, and then dying. I will never forget going to Confession for the first time — how nervous and jittery I was. Not only was I already filled with sadness, but now I was also expected to reflect on all of my past sins and tell someone about them. At that point in my life, humor was the absolute last way I expected to connect with my faith.
When considering what to cover in my first Confession, visions of third grade recess escapades and even worse antics from college raced through my head. Before I stepped into the booth, I noticed the priest from our neighboring parish charging into the Church, a little late, which added to my nervousness. Like Clark Kent becoming Superman, the priest quickly tossed off his denim jacket and put on his stole all while finishing a slice of pepperoni pizza. This moment was far less sober than I’d been anticipating.
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The priest entered the confessional booth, welcomed me, and immediately cracked a joke: He asked if I’d informed everyone at home I wouldn’t be there for the next few weeks since this was my first time here: we’d have so much to cover after all! He then apologized because he had pizza sauce on his shirt. I laughed. This was in no way what I’d expected to happen when I had been nervously recounting my sins to myself in the church hallway prior to entering the booth. Throughout the Confession, at various times, the priest and I were obviously serious. Yet, at others, we laughed together. I remember leaving the sacrament, feeling lighter and knowing I had made the right decision to convert.
For me, the beauty and the pull of Catholicism has always been that it acknowledges and comforts the suffering of those within its fold, while simultaneously providing an abundance of joy, community, and laughter — the full expanse of the human experience. St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) is one of my favorite saints to return to when I am overwhelmed by the suffering of this world. The patron saint of laughter and joy, his focus on bringing cheerfulness to everyone he met, no matter who they were, created a lasting impact in Rome during his lifetime, and he still provides an example for me to follow today. St. Philip Neri began his ministry by creating a confraternity, or a gathering of 15 of his friends who met to discuss spiritual matters. All of his companions were drawn to St. Philip because of his cheerfulness.
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One of my favorite stories about St. Philip is that when a particularly serious Bishop attended one of his Masses, he made it a point to make pronunciation errors throughout it, lightening the mood as he was known customarily to do regularly in his homilies. This attitude to choose joy and mirth during a moment when it might be least expected reminds me of my own formational experience when converting. It reminds me, too, of the joy and surprise I often experience in homilies at my current parish, when the priest merges humor with important Gospel messages.
St. Philip Neri is also known for opening his home to pilgrims visiting Rome, and eventually, he offered respite for those who needed it after being hospitalized. His small gathering of friends, or that confraternity, grew larger and larger. What is unique about this story isn’t that St. Philip created an order, as he eventually did after becoming a priest. Rather, it is that he was able to bring diverse personalities together through his joy and laughter.
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Praying. Discussing. Debating. Laughing. Building Community within the Church and/or outside of it. According to St. Philip, none of these could be done well without the other. “Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us preserve in a good life; wherefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits,” he’s famously known to have said.
I think of this quote often now in my own life, especially after yet another season of difficulty that this pandemic has brought upon me and so many others. The world seems to be a little less kind, and perhaps to have a little less laughter than it did before. The other day, I found myself “Marvel-ing” and chuckling about that picture of Pope Francis and Spiderman meeting at the Vatican, and I realized that much of the rest of the world probably managed at least a smile at this unlikely encounter, too.
I wanted to share the picture with everyone. Joy and laughter, I believe, are always worth sharing — always worth cultivating. What I can do in the moment with those I love, as well as with those whom I sometimes find difficult to love, is to find moments to be cheerful and share in joy. I can bring God to others, even when they suffer, and even when I do and have. If we can laugh together, we can build community, no matter our differences, just as St. Philip Neri did. Within this type of complex community, a community that acknowledges both suffering and joy, we can feel and experience God’s expansive love together.
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In the middle of grief, when taking care of two ailing parents, I began a conversion story to Catholicism. That was almost 10 years ago. Suffering may have brought me to the Catholic faith; encountering joy and laughter amidst the suffering in this fallen world is what has kept me there.
This confluence of joy and suffering comprises a large piece of the wholeness of our faith. Paul’s words from Romans 15:13 provide an anchor: “May the God of hope fill you with all the joy and peace in believing.” I’ve found I locate hope in communal laughter. The rest — that joy and peace that come from an assured belief — follow in kind.