Jesuit Father James Martin smiles as he speaks about hope to those gathered earlier this year at the inaugural Mid-Atlantic Congress for Pastoral Leadership in Baltimore. His latest book, published late last year, is Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humour and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr., Catholic Review

American Jesuit James Martin can find the humour in the Church

By 
  • June 26, 2012

Jesuit Father James (Jim) Martin is quickly becoming one of my favourite religious writers and orators. And the more I read of his works or watch his talks on TV and the Internet, the more impressed I become.

This American Jesuit thinks clearly, speaks and writes directly, and best of all, he is funny, although he has serious messages. (He is the official chaplain of Comedy Network’s The Colbert Report where he sometimes appears.) He is a populist who endeavours to make Catholicism ever more popular.

If you’re looking for summer reading, Fr. Martin has several best-selling books, including My Life With the Saints, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Centre Stage with Jesus, Judas and Life’s Big Questions, and the Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything.

His latest book, published late last year, is Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humour and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. In the book, he makes the case that in Catholic circles, unfortunately, joy has developed a disreputable reputation, and it shouldn’t. Too often solemnity replaces laughter and it needn’t.

He finds joy and humour in words and actions of various saints, martyrs and popes. He even finds jokes inside the Bible, sometimes hidden in first-century Jewish wit that often goes over the head of simple folk like me.

One of my favourites is John 1:45-51 when new apostle Philip tells Nathaniael that they have found the Lord, Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Like a Torontonian laughing at jokes about Buffalo, Jesus sees the humour and invites Nathanael to join Him and “see Heaven opened.”

Fr. Martin also has great affection for the Blessed Pope John XXIII and his wonderful sense of humour. When asked once how many people worked at the Vatican, the pontiff replied, “About half.”

As I read Fr. Martin, I cannot help but recall one of the funniest lines I ever heard in church and it came from my father, whom I think also believed humour to be good for spiritual health. My older brother, Michael, was taking his final vows to become a Redemptorist priest. The bishop asked him if he was prepared to take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Sitting in the front pew, not 20 feet from the bishop, my dad turned to my mother and in a booming voice said: “What’s so hard about that? I’ve been living that way for the last 15 years.” I couldn’t stop laughing, that is until I saw the look of embarrassment on mom’s face during one of the proudest moments of her life.

But I do not wish to leave readers with the impression Fr. Martin is all about jokes and laughing in church. He isn’t. Recently, he wrote a prayer for the Church in these troubling times. It is moving and thoughtful, challenging and hopeful. Here is an excerpt:

“Dear God, sometimes I get so frustrated with your Church. I know that I’m not alone. So many people who love your Church feel frustrated with the Body of Christ on Earth… We grow worried and concerned and bothered and angry and sometimes scandalized because your divine institution, our home, is filled with human beings who are sinful. Just like me... Help me to remember that Jesus promised that He would be with us until the end of time, and that your Church is always guided by the Holy Spirit, even if it’s hard for me to see. Sometimes change happens suddenly, and the Spirit astonishes us, but often in the Church it happens slowly. In your time, not mine… Help me to understand that there was never a time when there were not arguments or disputes within your Church. Arguments go all the way back to Peter and Paul debating one another. And there was never a time when there wasn’t sin among the members of your Church. That kind of sin goes back to Peter denying Jesus during His Passion. Why would today’s Church be any different than it was for people who knew Jesus on Earth?.... Help me to trust in the Resurrection. The Risen Christ reminds us that there is always the hope of something new. Death is never the last word for us… Give me hope.”

I find the ideas and writing of Fr. Martin often fill me with hope and joy. Besides books, he also has a blog and can be found on Facebook too. It is safe to say Between Heaven and Mirth will have you laughing (and praying) while reading on the dock or poolside this summer.

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