MILWAUKEE — The title of the 2010 Pallium Lecture – “Laughing with the Saints: Joy, Humor and Laughter in the Spiritual Life” – might have been what brought more than 700 people to Mount Mary College Oct. 21. But it was the presenter, Jesuit Fr. James Martin, who kept them laughing.

From the opening of his presentation, Fr. Martin, culture editor at America magazine and author of several books, including “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life,” wove jokes, some about himself and other Jesuits, some regarding saints and others in the church, into his presentation.

“Those stories are the point of my talk – that joy, humor and laughter are underappreciated values in the spiritual life, and are needed not only in our personal spiritual lives, but in the life of the church,” he said.

He termed it a “tragedy” that joy had gotten a “disreputable reputation in the church.”

“Joy is not only necessary, but it also has a distinguished history among the saints as an essential element of spiritual health,” he said. “Anyone truly in touch with God is joyful.”

The priest, who worked in corporate finance at General Electric before entering the Jesuits, said he wasn’t sure how “humor and laughter were deemed somehow inappropriate in Catholic circles,” but he cautioned those who were “deadly serious,” warning that they could be “seriously dead.”

Fr. Martin continued, “I’m sure we all know priests who make you wonder how they can say they celebrate the Mass when they never crack a smile.”

In an exaggerated monotone, he recited a Mass preface, “In our joy we sing to your glory with all the choirs of angels: Holy, holy, holy…” and continued, “If that’s the way the choirs of angels are singing, we’re in big trouble.”

One of the reasons people don’t recognize the humor in Scripture, according to Fr. Martin, is that since they have heard the stories so often, it’s like hearing the same joke repeatedly. But he said the story of the call of Nathaniel (Jn 1:45-51) in which Nathaniel sarcastically tells Philip, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” is an example of Jesus’ humor and appreciation of humor.

Fr. Martin said, “Jesus responds, ‘There is an Israelite without guile.’ This tells us Nathaniel had a sense of humor; Jesus appreciated someone with a sense of humor; and the evangelist appreciated a little, funny story. It is interesting residue in the Gospel, but we’re so familiar with that story, what do we say?”

With a sullen face and monotone voice, the priest said, “’Praise be to you, Lord Jesus Christ.’”

The priest said it is time to recover Jesus’ sense of humor.

“Someone who told parables must have laughed, and must have been an enjoyable person,” Fr. Martin said. “Today, it seems, humor seems like a strike against Catholics. It should be seen as a requirement.”

During his presentation and a day earlier in an interview with your Catholic Herald, he noted how Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan used humor. Following his installation as archbishop of New York, Archbishop Dolan was asked by a reporter if there was anything he’d like to condemn.

“Yes, I’d like to condemn light beer and instant mashed potatoes,” the archbishop replied.

Describing Archbishop Dolan as having “a great sense of humor” and as “light hearted and positive,” Fr. Martin said, “At the time of his installation he said, ‘Happiness attracts.’”

The priest listed 10 points why joy, humor and laughter were important in spiritual life. Among them:

  • Humor evangelizes. “Joy, humor and laughter show people one’s faith in God. An essentially positive outlook shows people you believe in what? The Resurrection and the power of life over death. And the power of love over hatred. The power of hope over despair,” he said. He recalled asking Jesuit Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, then-superior general of the Jesuits, the best way of increasing vocations. Fr. Kolvenbach replied, “Live your own vocation joyfully.”
  • Humor is a tool in one’s quest for humility. “Self-deprecating humor can deflate egos and bring people back to earth,” he said. “Humor is a tool in your quest for humility; humor shocks listeners into recognizing reality; humor gets to the point.”
  • Humor speaks truth to power. “A witty remark,” he said, “is a time honored way to challenge the pompous, puffed up and powerful. Jesus employed humor in this way.”
  • Humor shows Christian courage. Reminding the audience that when St. Lawrence was being burned to death, he told his executioners, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side,” Fr. Martin continued, “It was a challenge to his executioners; it was a profession of faith … that says, ‘I do not fear death. I know that my redeemer lives.’”
  • Humor deepens our relationship with God. Noting that a relationship requires humor from time to time, he said, “Can you allow God to take delight in you? Can you imagine being with God in a joyful or even playful way? Can you imagine God being playful with you? Do you think that the funny things that cut you down to size may just be God’s playfulness? Can you imagine yourself smiling and laughing with God in your prayer?”
  • Humor welcomes. Terming hospitality “an important virtue in the both the Old and New Testaments,” he recalled the story of Abraham and Sarah offering hospitality and then being told by the Lord that, as old as they were, she would give birth to their son. When he was born, they named him Isaac (which means “one laughs”). Quoting Sarah, Fr. Martin said, “God has given me cause to laugh, and all who hear of it will laugh with me.” Jesus was always showing hospitality, the priest said, adding, “Humor is one way of showing hospitality. Maybe it is the easiest way to get someone to feel at home is to get them to laugh.”
  • Humor is healing. Fr. Martin noted that doctors are aware of the healing power of laughter. “People might be able to use some laughter and light heartedness,” he said. “Humor can give us a break – a psychological break, a spiritual break – and might help the Body of Christ to heal.”

In the interview with your Catholic Herald, Fr. Martin said that as he started talking about his 2006 book, “My Life with the Saints,” “People were surprised, because most people think of the saints as grumpy, dower and serious, and that’s based largely on portraiture, and some hagiographic writing makes them always seem very grumpy, he said. “So when you hear stories about them being funny, and not just clever or provocative, but funny, it’s quite a surprise.”

He said the lives of the saints are filled with people who had a great sense of humor.

“They’re hopeful, positive people. They believe in God, so they have an essentially positive outlook,” he said, noting that people were attracted to them. “They have a sense of perspective, and they’re emotionally healthy, and they can laugh at some of life’s absurdities and their own foibles.”

Fr. Martin noted that saints he admires, among them St. Therese of Lisieux, Blessed John XXIII and Thomas Merton, had a sense of humor.

“They laughed; they enjoyed themselves,” he said.

The priest said that one will rarely find pictures of the saints smiling, and that he was aware of only two pictures of Jesus smiling – the laughing Jesus and Jesus at the seashore.

“Catholics have as much of a sense of humor as anyone else does,” he said. “The problem is that most Christians think laughter and even silliness or levity is somehow antithetical to serious religious.”

Fr. Martin asked, “Do we really think people are going to want to join the Catholic Church if we’re miserable?”

Noting that joy and laughter often come across best in the homily because the priest or deacon might use a joke or be light hearted, he continued, “It is the celebration of the Mass, so it should be a celebration. This doesn’t mean you’re laughing and grinning idiotically and being ridiculous, but at some point, a sense of joy needs to come through because – guess what? – Christ is risen,” he said.