Know any good jokes? Any good Catholic jokes? There is something distinctively Catholic about comedy, good humor and story telling. The 14th century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, referred to the nine circles of Hell in his classic The Divine Comedy. To the ordinary reader this makes the term comedy seem like a misnomer. Renaissance comedy has revolved around the banalities of everyday life while tragedy was dealt with heroes in pursuit of honor, love, or patriotism.
Tragic figures maintain their honor but usually die in the process while comic figures lose their dignity but live to tell the tale. That has quickly become my personal motto! At the heart of all comedy is humor. Humor is a citizen of two worlds. While it is anchored in this world, humor ultimately looks to the heavens above in anticipation of the next world. In laughing, one must hold his sides while looking upward at the Divine Toastmaster.
Humor can be uplifting, derisive, and bawdy. It can be self-effacing, intellectual, whimsical, and puerile. It ranges from the clownish pratfalls of a Chevy Chase to the delicate nuances of a Shakespearean witticism. Chase’s ridicule and pratfalls of President Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live probably cost him the election in 1976. In one, Chase nearly killed himself trying to mimic the clumsy president in the voting booth. Chase actually fell off the NBC stage and broke a couple of ribs.
In constant pain for years, Chase became addicted to painkillers. He had to detox at––the Betty Ford Center in California. What delicious irony is that! While laughter is the outward appreciation of life, it involves an inner assent to God’s creation. To a secular America, devoutly religious people seem to lack a sense of humor. With their visible puritanical resignation to life’s trials, religious people can easily lose sight of the legitimate earthly joys and pleasures that God has designed for them. With one’s eyes permanently downcast, it is too easy to fall prey to the Manichean trap that condemns all earthly fun in the name of piety and salvation. I believe a sense of humor is a necessity for one to be a good Catholic.
A church that cannot laugh at itself will not be able to serve its flock properly.
The Catholic sense of humor relies on the thinking and attitudes that make us distinctively Catholic. A good example might be a joke I chose to tell for Speech class when I was in college. A little boy, the third of nine children was feeling restless at his baby sister’s baptismal. When he wouldn’t behave, his father sternly warned him: Timmy if you don’t stop it, we won’t bring you next year!
Humor is God’s gift to a humanity that takes its pride in large doses.
Laughter is the ontological opposite of pride, which is taking oneself so seriously that it obscures the image of God in the human soul. One need only be reminded of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden.
The first parents thought that they were God’s equals, only to find out later that the joke has been on them and their descendants ever since. In The Passion of the Christ, amid the bloody carnage of Jesus’ graphic suffering and violent death, director Mel Gibson flashed back to Jesus as a young carpenter, frolicking with and teasing his mother Mary who revealed her own dry sense of humor. Gibson’s film was unlike any other depictions of Jesus’ life and death. Too often filmmakers and the religiously devout are so awe-stricken by Jesus’ Divinity that they forget His humanity.
Life without laughter, even Jesus’ is like a day without sunshine. Just as human love can reflect Divine love, humor can transcend man’s mortal boundaries and provide a glimpse of God’s Divinity. Laughter is just the tease, the psychological rush that will prepare God’s faithful servants for an eternal basking in the warmth of His Divine smile.
On his highly popular 1950’s TV show, Life Is Worth Living series, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen reminded his viewers that humor is really about child’s play. Jesus told his followers in Matthew’s Gospel, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He also stressed that unless you become like children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
I believe that the face of a laughing or smiling child is a reflection of the face of God. Echoing the words of poet Francis Thompson, Bishop Sheen ended his program one time with a childlike gleam of anticipation in his radiant eyes and a fervent prayer that enlisted his audience to look for me in the nursery of Heaven!