The nation and the Catholic Church have suffered quite a few blows in recent years: financial crises and high unemployment, natural disasters, clergy sex abuse scandals and the battle to preserve the traditional definition of marriage, to name a few. Although the hardships might seem like ample cause for a bleak atmosphere in the Church and a grim attitude among its members, three Catholics with a great appreciation for wit — Jesuit Father James Martin, Lino Rulli and Judy McDonald — argue that now is the time for Catholics to infuse their spiritual lives and faith communities with a renewed sense of humor and joy.
Priest-author makes case for lightening up — even in church
Father James Martin is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine and a New York Times best-selling author. He’s also been dubbed the official chaplain of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. Within 24 hours of returning from his inaugural pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Father Martin spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about his new book, “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life” (HarperOne, $25.99) and about the role that joy, humor and laughter play in the Church and in our own spiritual lives.
Our Sunday Visitor: What is the essence of what you want people to get from the book?
Father James Martin: First, that faith inevitably leads to joy. Second, that the saints and great spiritual masters used humor as a way to give them perspective on life. And third, that laughter is an important part of a healthy spiritual and emotional life.
OSV: How would you describe your own sense of humor, and did it change after you left the corporate world and joined the Jesuits?
Father Martin: My own sense of humor is pretty playful and maybe a little ironic, perhaps thanks to living in New York City. It is also a little different than when I was in the corporate world, I hope, as a result of my exposure to the Gospels, which remind us that humor should never belittle anyone. And that’s somewhat different than what I found in parts of the corporate world.
OSV: You’ve appeared on “The Colbert Report” several times. Is there a certain pressure to be funny in that setting?
Father Martin: There’s pressure not to make a fool of yourself, for one thing, which is always a danger. But they tell you right up front, “Don’t try to be funny, just be yourself, because you can’t out-funny Stephen Colbert.” So I just try to be myself and we have a good time.
I really enjoy my time on his show. It’s also a form of evangelization, because so many people in their 20s and 30s watch that show, and so it’s a way to talk about the Gospels to a new audience.
OSV: In the book, you discuss the benefits of humor, including humility. You have received much more national media recognition than most priests. How does humor help you stay humble?
Father Martin: It’s an enormous temptation to let all of that go to your head. The most helpful thing is just spending time with my friends, who always poke fun at me. Also, not taking yourself too seriously, and remembering that the center of all this attention should be God, not you. The other thing is if I ever get too big for my britches, life just brings me back down to earth.
OSV: You wrote a chapter about laughing in church. For some Catholics, this could be confusing because we’re told to have reverence at Mass.
When is it OK to laugh in church?
Father Martin: There are obviously times that are very serious, and much of the Mass is about serious topics, it’s about the death and resurrection of Christ. But by the same token, the Resurrection was a joyful event and we do talk about the “celebration” of the Mass. So I think it needs to be balanced out. I don’t think that there’s a problem with Catholics not being serious enough during Mass; I think there’s a problem of Catholics being too serious during Mass all the time. It’s obviously a place for reverence, but it should also be a place for joy, too, and occasional humor and laughter.
OSV: What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever had happen while celebrating Mass?
Father Martin: Certainly, the story I tell in the book about my nephew who always makes the Sign of the Cross at mealtimes, and when I made the Sign of the Cross [at the beginning of Mass] he yelled, “Shut up!” That brought the house down. It wasn’t just one “Shut up,” it was a constant “Shut up! Stop it!” He threw a bit of a tantrum, since he was only 3 or 4.
But there have been many snafus that have happened in my Masses. For example, I forgot my homily once. I tried to preach without notes and completely forgot it, and I just had to laugh. Ironically, afterward some parishioners said to me, “That was so wonderful to see, because we never see priests fluffing their lines. It made you seem more human.”
OSV: You wrote that humor should be seen as a requirement in a Church leader. Why do you think it’s such an important attribute?
Father Martin: First, it’s important to have a sense of humility and poverty of spirit. Second, humor helps us get along with people. Humor is a natural social element that is an essential part of human interaction. Third, to gain some perspective. The saints used humor as a tool in their quest for humility and also as a way of gaining some perspective on their place in the universe. And finally, as Archbishop Timothy Dolan has said, “Happiness attracts.” Why would anyone want to join a group of miserable people?
It also communicates our belief in the Resurrection. We’re living in Easter time now — Christ has risen. The disciples ran with joy to see the risen Lord. They didn’t mope around.
It’s a very complicated topic, because you don’t want to give the impression that you want people to be irreverent or silly, but I’m just trying to balance things out a bit.
OSV: How can Church leaders go about lightening up a little or infusing a sense of joy and humor back into the spiritual life of its members?
Father Martin: Far be it for me to give advice to Church leaders, first of all. But it’s an invitation for all Christians to recover a sense of the inherent joy in the Gospel, to see humor as something that the saints used and therefore as something we can use. Life gives us plenty of invitations to laugh at ourselves. That’s the first step, to laugh at ourselves and at the absurdities of life, and to not take ourselves too seriously. And all of this leads to attracting more people to Christ.
It’s not to say that we have to be grinning idiots 24/7, but I think we are so far over to the one pole that this book is just trying to bring us back a little bit to the center.
OSV: What could that movement back to the center mean for the future of the Church?
Father Martin: It’s a tool for evangelization. Human nature is such that we are attracted to joy; and there’s something profound about that because the attraction to joy is the attraction to God’s joy. It’s our ultimate goal — joy with God — so there’s something within us that responds very deeply to the experiences of communal joy. The more the Church recovers it, the more it will be able to attract people.
OSV: What do you think it means to have a Catholic sense of humor?
Father Martin: A Catholic sense of humor recognizes that the Catholic Church and Catholic churches can be places where there’s a lot of joy, humor and laughter.
Everybody’s been in Mass or at a wedding when something funny has happened. Catholic humor also binds people together; it’s another way of experiencing community.
It’s like a good family that has inside jokes. But there are so many different cultural aspects to that — there’s Italian Catholics and Irish Catholics, for example — so it depends as much on the culture as it does on the religion. But, in short, few people understand jokes about confession as well as Catholics do!
Father James Martin’s website is www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin
Read more from Father Martin: "How you can develop a Catholic sense of humor"
Catholic ‘screw-up’ explains why humor is essential to spiritual life
Lino Rulli is a three-time Emmy winner and the host of “The Catholic Guy Show” on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. His new book is “Sinner: The Catholic Guy’s Funny, Feeble Attempts To Be a Faithful Catholic” (Servant Books, $18.99).
Our Sunday Visitor: What did you want to accomplish with this book?
Lino Rulli: It seems like everybody who writes books, does religious media or religious TV, they’re these perfect people with perfect lives. That’s not me. And it doesn’t seem like it’s most people I know, and so something that’s nagged me for years is that I’m this practicing Catholic, but I don’t think I’m very good at being Catholic. So what I wanted to say is hey, I’m a guy who takes my faith seriously, but that doesn’t mean I’m a serious person. I’m still a screw-up, I make way more mistakes than I’m supposed to at this point in my life, I’m way more immature, I commit way more sins, I’m not the person that it seems you’re supposed to be based on what religious media or Catholic media tells me. So, my whole point for writing the book was I want to see how many people are really more like me instead of pretending to be perfect people.
OSV: Were you worried about crossing the line with how much you revealed?
Rulli: No, I wanted to reveal a lot more, but you have to draw the line somewhere. The story to me that is the most embarrassing to say is, “I went to Thailand with some friends, and I was really tempted to get a prostitute.” Now, this is a horrible thing to admit, it’s horrible for my mom and dad to read, it’s weird for my friends to read. But that is a story that I’m glad I put in because it’s so embarrassing that I hope other people can laugh at their own sort of weaknesses and sins and say, “Wow, I’m not the only one who strives and fails completely.”
OSV: Two of your influences are Howard Stern and David Letterman. How do you incorporate aspects of their style or humor into your work but still keep it appropriate for your mostly Catholic audience?
Rulli: People are — not so much with Letterman, but for sure with Howard — always scandalized. I’ve been booked as a speaker at events before and they’ve pulled out because they go, “Wait a minute, you admire Howard Stern? You can’t come and talk to us anymore.”
We all have influences in our lives. It would be intellectually dishonest for me not to admit who has influenced me. Stern’s honesty is what influences me more than anything on earth. Quite frankly, I think that we in the Church could learn a great deal from just being more honest. As for Letterman, I am generally a sarcastic, ironic, cynical person. Now, maybe those aren’t the greatest words to describe a Christian, but it’s just true. After all these years of watching him on TV, he’s influenced me.
And my third role model, by the way, who nobody ever finds too controversial, is Pope John Paul II, but I also don’t ever plan on moving to Poland to become the archbishop of Krakow. But those are the three people who’ve really shaped me into who I am, for better or for worse.
OSV: In 2008 you did a segment on your show called “Why are Catholics so uptight?” You had attended a party with some Catholics whom you called “uptight cranks.” Since then, have you figured out the answer to your question?
Rulli: I think it’s a misunderstanding of Catholicism, period. What I mean is, to be serious about faith does not mean you have to be serious. I think somehow people get confused with what happens at Mass and being reverent at Mass — our lives aren’t the Mass. The reverence that you need to have at Mass, you’re not supposed to have at the Super Bowl party. It’s not a dichotomy to have joy and be Catholic.
OSV: How has having a sense of humor helped you in your own spiritual life?
Rulli: Having a sense of humor is essential in the Christian life. At the end of the day, you can either laugh at yourself and at what’s going on in your life or be just miserably unhappy about it. We can’t control the things in our lives, and you know the axiom for 2,000 years in Catholicism has been to “offer it up.” I would argue you could also laugh it up. I realize you can’t laugh it up when your leg is being cut off or about the tragic things that happen in life, but to laugh it up is to say, like with my prostitution story, “I’m just a big moron. What is wrong with me?” And, yeah, you can beat yourself up, and you should to a certain point, but then you can also just laugh about it and say, “Oh my God, I’m a flawed human being who wants to do better.” When we’re laughing, it opens us up to God, it opens us up to faith, because when we’re in better moods, we’re more spiritually open to God.
Rulli’s website is www.linorulli.com.
Comedian: God created us to have a sense of humor, and he’s in on the joke
Judy McDonald is a Catholic comedian and former youth minister based in San Diego, Calif, who has performed in parishes, conferences, colleges and military bases around the world.
Our Sunday Visitor: It can be difficult for people to discuss religion with others. How does humor help you reach audiences on this topic?
Judy McDonald: Humor is international; it cuts down all boundaries. When people are laughing together, their guard is down. After you laugh and tell somebody about embarrassing things in your life, when you deliver the message of Christ to them, they’re more apt to receive it because now you’re not just some nut with the Bible thumping them — they know about you and you’ve almost built a relationship with humor. They can hear the Gospel on a level where there’s a little bit of trust.
OSV: When you perform, how do you strike the right balance of how much humor to put into the topic of religion?
McDonald: A misconception when people hear that I’m a Catholic comedian is that I’m just going to make fun of the Catholic Church, which I don’t do. I generally just report on my experiences. But for me, I’m heavily dependent on my ghostwriter, the Holy Spirit. Before, I would hem and haw and worry and now I really take into prayer who I’m talking to. When is it OK to put humor in and when is it not? It’s just something you learn over a period of time, and it’s only by listening and being obedient that you know.
OSV: How has having a sense of humor helped you in your own spiritual life?
McDonald: It’s a two-edged sword for me, because I get challenged a lot that funny people can’t go deep. That’s something I really struggled with until I came to the understanding that God created us in a certain way. Now I understand that the only reason I have a sense of humor is through God. What I think and what humans think is funny is because God enabled that to be in our personality. He knew what he was doing when he created beans and what would happen to our bodies. God has a sense of humor; I just think we don’t always get the joke.
OSV: What are people’s reactions when they learn that you’re a Catholic comedian?
McDonald: Right away, people either say, “Oh, that’s cool” or “Do you make fun of the Church?” There’s a lot of misconception and misunderstanding. I think a lot of times with comedians we think of biting or cutting or tearing-down comedy. But humor in its purest form is just joy, and that’s why I think it correlates back to spirituality. It isn’t about tearing anybody else down; it’s about looking at life and saying, “Yeah, that’s kind of funny.”
OSV: What can Catholics do to lighten up a little and see the joy in life more?
McDonald: Certainly, the average Catholic laughs at all sorts of things, but what we tend to do as humans is secularize what we do and where God is. You don’t really think that God is present when you’re having a good time.
But he understands that part of being human is laughing. Once we understand that good humor is reflecting back on how good God is, I think we can celebrate humor more and not take ourselves so seriously. We can appreciate that God could have made us without a sense of humor and made us grumpy all the time, but he didn’t. You will spill milk out your nose if you laugh too hard, and God knows that; I think he delights when we do that.
McDonald’s website is www.judymcdonald.net.
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