During his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis captivated the world with a single gesture.
While touring in the popemobile among the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, he had the vehicle stopped, got out and leaned over a barricade to kiss a disabled man who was being lifted up by a friend.
At the pope’s kiss, the man’s face lit up with an exuberant smile.
Over the past few weeks, Pope Francis has said frequently that joy, like that apparent on the man’s face, is no accident, but is the natural outcome of following Christ. Cultivating such joy in others is one of Pope Francis’ main goals as part of the "new evangelization" — an effort to reignite the Catholic faith in those who have drifted away from the church or are unfamiliar with Catholicism.
The movement for a new evangelization was started by Blessed Pope John Paul II and promoted by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he establishing the current Year of Faith, which runs through Nov. 24, marking both the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now Pope Francis appears to be building on his predecessors’ legacies; he reportedly told his fellow cardinals prior to his election that the church should reach to its peripheries to cultivate faith and joy in people.
Finding joy in Christ
In the weeks since his election, Pope Francis has frequently talked about joy. During his Palm Sunday homily March 24, he encouraged the faithful to be joyful, saying, "Do not be men and women of sadness: A Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy born of having many possessions, but from having encountered a person: Jesus, in our midst; it is born from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable."
Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, a Rochester native who served as an assistant spokesperson at the Vatican during the papal transition, said the pope recently pointed out that people must be joyful to evangelize effectively.
"We can’t be proclaiming the good news with sadness or weariness of spirit," Father Rosica noted, referring to the good news of the Gospels, which tell of God’s plan of salvation, and Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead.
During his homily at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, March 28, Pope Francis also talked about priestly ministry as a way to impart joy.
"A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed: this is a clear proof," the pope said. "When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news."
Writing in an Easter message, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, Bishop of Syracuse and apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Rochester, echoed that idea, noting that joy is the natural outcome of an encounter with Christ.
"(The Lord) comes to meet us in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the sacred Scriptures, the teachings of the church, and in our brothers and sisters," Bishop Cunningham wrote. "When we find him we cannot keep the good news to ourselves. We proclaim this good news with enthusiasm and joy."
The attraction of joy
Indeed, joy is a powerful, attractive force that helps to draw people to religious vocations, said Carol Dady, coordinator of vocations and seminarians for the diocese.
Rather than simply focusing on promoting priestly vocations among young men, the diocese has tried to create opportunities for young men to interact with priests so that they can discern whether they are being called to the priestly vocation, Dady said. These encounters can give the men a taste of the joy a religious vocation can bring to their lives, she noted.
"The perception is that the priesthood is a lonely life," Dady said. "In reality, when you speak to (priests) and ask them, they are very joyful, and it’s not lonely."
Among the events the vocations office has sponsored to facilitate interaction among discerners and priests have been gatherings at Becket Hall, the diocesan residential program for those discerning priestly vocations, and parish-prepared Fisher Dinners, which are meals intended to spark prayer, fellowship and conversation among discerners and clergy. Dady noted that another such vocations dinner is scheduled for May 30.
"As discerners, that just provides an opportunity for informal conversation and a meal to ask any questions they want and to see what it’s like (to be a priest)," Dady said.
A local priest said the chance to talk to men discerning a vocation also helps bolster his own faith.
"I think it brings the Gospel alive when you see people living their faith in joy," said Father Robert Schrader, pastor of Peace of Christ Parish in Rochester. "When I see new seminarians coming up, they are very happy. You can tell that this is part of them."
A local Sister of Mercy said she also draws joy from the faith of those around her.
"I find it a great encouragement and a joy to be in the company of people who are motivated by the God life within them," said Sister of Mercy Janet Korn, who is in charge of mission and outreach for the diocesan office of Parish and Clergy Services and also serves as diocesan missions-awareness coordinator.
Joy also is a key component in the successes of some of the most prominent contemporary Catholics. For instance, Jesuit Father James Martin, author of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, often appears in secular media outlets trading quips with comedians and explaining the Catholic faith to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
The exuberant Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, who has frequently appeared in the secular media, is another example of a prominent Catholic whose joyful personality draws people to him, Sister Korn said.
"Cardinal Dolan, he’s like a magnet," she remarked.
So how do average Catholics cultivate a similar joy in their lives?
Sister Korn, who has worked as a teacher, a missionary in Chile, and a leader in her congregation and in the diocese, said she derives joy from serving others.
"I believe it’s the sense of purpose that this life offers me," she said. "I don’t think there can be a better purpose than to offer oneself to the service of the community."
Father Schrader said he has been actively cultivating joy during the Year of Faith by rereading the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
"It’s an eye-opener," he said. "It’s a re-energizer for evangelization."
Father Rosica said Christians who despair in their lives should instead find joy in the central truth of Christianity: "There is a tomb in Jerusalem, and it is empty."