Ask Father Tom: Where can we find true joy?

“The difficulty in attaining joy seems to us particularly acute today. Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. Money, comfort, and material security are often not lacking; and yet boredom, depression and sadness affect many. Does the future perhaps seem too uncertain, human life too threatened? Or is it not perhaps a matter of loneliness, of an unsatisfied thirst for love, of an ill-defined emptiness? In many regions and sometimes in our midst, the sum of physical and moral sufferings weighs heavily: so many starving people, so many victims of fruitless combats, so many people torn from their homes! These miseries are perhaps not deeper than those of the past but they are better known and they overwhelm people’s minds. Often there seems to be no adequate solution to them.”

By Father Tom Knoblach

That assessment rings true today, but it comes from St. Paul VI’s 1975 message for Pentecost, entitled “Gaudete in Domino” (“Rejoice in the Lord”). Pope Paul is often remembered for “Humanae Vitae” and concluding the Second Vatican Council, but “Gaudete in Domino” reveals another side of him, deep wells of spiritual wisdom about trust and the joy that is the gift of the Holy Spirit to bring us comfort in troubling times.

Perhaps even more than 41 years ago, it seems that we are increasingly conditioned to react to events with panic, suspicion, anxiety. Fear and mistrust, anger and opposition often dominate our individual and collective emotions. With the advent of social media and 24/7 news cycles, there is sometimes a strange competition to see who can convey the most bad news and foment the greatest sense of alarm.

It is right to be concerned about growing violence, despair, crime, disrespect for human life and disregard for the dignity of others. Yet as St. Augustine once wrote, it might seem like past ages were good, but that’s only because we’re not living in them. The troubles of every era are real and demand a constructive response in charity. If our only contribution is to complain, criticize, tear down and feed on negativity, we simply add to the problems.

Where then do we begin to find joy? Pope Paul says we start by savoring the many human joys that God places in our path: the very joy of being alive; the joy of human love in family and friendships; the peaceful joy of nature and silence; the joy of work well done and duty performed; the uplifting joy of goodness, service and sharing; the demanding joy of sacrifice. To find Christian joy presupposes a person capable of natural joy.

But this joy is more than an emotion, not merely a human experience. Authentic joy is spiritual, literally a divine gift from the Holy Spirit. If we lose our sense of the sacredness of life, the goodness of creation, the dignity of others made in God’s image, we also lose our connection with God and sever our link to spiritual joy.

Because this gift of joy surpasses human happiness, joy from God can co-exist with suffering and realism about the problems of life. It is a joy that inspired our ancestors in faith — sending missionaries, establishing religious communities, building hospitals and schools, caring for the forgotten and despised, even accepting a martyr’s death in time with the assurance of eternity. The same joy will sustain us in hope that does not disappoint.

In the end, Christian joy is not an attitude we take or an optimism we display; it is a gift of God’s love that we receive. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI notes in “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” that though our English translation of Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is “hail,” the angel begins not with the customary Hebrew word “shalom” (peace), but with the Greek “chaire,” or rejoice. She who is invited to welcome God’s own life within her as the Mother of Jesus receives joy, and joy bears fruit in love made flesh in her womb. Each time we pray the Hail Mary we are referring to that word of joy.

As Pope Paul concludes, for a member of the Body of Christ, Christian joy is nothing other than the joy of Jesus. This is not simply joy like his, but the very joy that Jesus himself experiences. The secret of the joy of Jesus, as Paul says, is the absolute assurance, even on the cross, of the Father’s love. Thus this joy is not something we can control, purchase, find online, create for ourselves. As a gift, we can only open ourselves to receive it.

In 1975, Pope Paul made an appeal still relevant today: “Let the agitated members of various groups reject the excesses of systematic and destructive criticism! Without departing from a realistic viewpoint, let Christian communities become centers of optimism where all resolutely endeavor to perceive the positive aspect of people and events. … It would be very strange if the Good News, which evokes the alleluia of the Church, did not give us the look of those who are saved.”

We still live with the pandemic, political strife, economic worries, family struggles and personal woes. The joy of Jesus Christ will not resolve all our human problems, just as it did not spare him the cross or keep the sword of sorrow from Mary’s heart. Whatever your worries and troubles today, pray for the Spirit’s gift that lets us see that, for God, the last word of human history is not loss or despair or death — it is joy.

Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Getty Images/evgenyatamanenko

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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