The confounding joy of being Catholic

I’ve been spending some time reading through the “Instrumentum Laboris”, the working document for the Vatican’s upcoming Synod on Youth to be held in Rome in October. (A synod is a gathering of Catholic bishops from around the globe who come together with the Holy Father to discuss and debate on a chosen topic. It has become customary to release a working document prior to the gathering that outlines some of what they’ll be working on and talking about.) This particular document isn’t a terribly uplifting read, but it is helpful and eye opening, especially for anyone who is in ministry, to form a clear understanding of the present moment.

First and foremost, the Church has an image problem. A massive PR problem, honestly. And it deals largely with Her members. This line, among the many, stood out to me with utter clarity: Young people are attracted to the joy which should be a hallmark of our faith.(pt. 7, paragraph 2)

Are you a joyful Christian? When people find out that you’re Catholic, are they shocked because you seem so fun and so…normal?

Do they widen their eyes in surprise because they didn’t realize that someone could profess a sincere and orthodox faith and also drink wine/smoke cigars/run marathons/attend concerts/work with the homeless/throw great parties/produce incredible art?

I remember when I started my first semester at Steubenville as a very jaded party girl transferring in from a state university, I was shocked when I discovered not only was there a vibrant (perhaps occasionally too vibrant) off campus party scene, but that the parties were more fun than the wildest ragers I’d attended in Boulder.

A lot more fun, now that I think of it. People were drinking beer and playing guitar and flirting and even (gasp) smoking the occasional cigarette and they were genuinely enjoying their lives and the company of their friends.

Typically, at least in our circle, nobody got drunk enough to throw up or lose control of their faculties (of course there’s always an exception, Franciscan is not some shining city on a hill where nobody sins), and more often than not, a party might end with praise and worship music around a bonfire, a robust discussion of Thomistic philosophy at 1am, or somebody ducking out before midnight because they had a Holy Hour they’d committed to.

It was really weird.

Imagine my surprise when I realized life could not only still be “fun,”but that life was, in fact, better with Christ.

When I realized that I could live without throwing an artificial barrier up between my “religion” and my “real life” and that, in fact, it was actually pretty hypocritical to do so, it was immensely freeing.

I have never stopped relishing in that freedom.

Finding a community of joyful and like minded Catholics has proven absolutely essential to growing in and nurturing that freedom.

I first found “my people” during my time at Franciscan. And I’ve found my people over and over again since then. Some of us served as FOCUS missionaries, some of us went to grad school and studied theology, some of us work for the Church in some capacity, some of us graduated from a completely secular university and found Jesus after college, some of us were strong enough to keep hold of His hand all throughout…but the unifying factor in our friendship is the pursuit of holiness through living in fidelity to the Catholic Church. We are artists, businessmen, nurses, engineers, stay at home moms, home educators, public school teachers, and work from home moms. There is no one size fits all to our makeup, beyond Christ.

The joy that unites us is, I hope, authentic and approachable and always, always welcoming to outsiders.

There is not much point in grimly gritting your teeth and trudging through the Christian life resentful of the perceived shackles of the Church’s view of morality and human nature. Either reject it outright, or embrace it to the full and believe that God knew what He was doing when He laid down the (natural) law, and pick yourself up and get to Confession when you do fall short again (and again).

I think often of the GK Chesterton quote that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been f0und difficult, and left untried.”

I think there are plenty of young people who think they know what Catholicism is all about, or at least have a pretty good idea of it, either from their own upbringing, a lackluster experience in a lukewarm Catholic school, or a grumpy, aging relative who doesn’t like the way they dress.

They hear “Catholic” and their brains automatically jump to the “shalt nots” rather than to the joyful “fiats.” So instead of Mother Teresa’s joyful smile and fruitful mission springing to mind, they go directly to all the things that popular culture tells them the Church finds Herself on “the wrong side of history” from.

How powerful if you could turn that tide for someone.

How incredible if you and your family, if you have one, could single handedly help rewrite someone’s script of what it looks like to be Catholic.

There was another line from the document that stuck with me, and I’ll paraphrase, but it’s that the Church is not merely an institution or a building, but is people.

When non-Catholics and even non-practicing Catholics think of “the Church” they aren’t usually thinking of “the Vatican” or even “the Pope”…they’re thinking of Mrs. so-and-so who taught 4th grade religion, or of that one bad priest they ran across in their youth, or maybe even of an estranged family member.

As individual members of the body of Christ, we have profound power (and a grave responsibility) to transmit the joy of the Gospel to the people in our lives. And not just those with whom we share a pew on Sundays. With our atheist baristas, our gay neighbors, our Protestant mail carriers and our Jewish pediatricians. With our ex-Catholic orthodontist and our nothing-specific business contact.

There should be no sphere of life that is “safe” from your Catholicism.

That illusion of faith belonging to a specific and finite aspect of your life has done more harm than good in our rapidly-secularizing culture.

The more that Christians retreat in reticent and so-called politeness, shying away from bringing their relationship with Christ into every aspect of their daily lives, the darker and less humane our world becomes. It is up to us to bring that transcendent joy into our offices, our driveways, and yes, our happy hour meet ups.

Let your joy be cause for someone else’s head scratching. Lead with joy. See what follows.

Pope Francis’ seminary yearbook/mugshot. Everyone’s got that one pic …


  • Lisa

    “There is no one size fits all to our makeup, beyond Christ.” Makes me think of the friendly mom with multiple ear piercings and upper arm tattoo, driving the 15 passenger van in front of me for Chatechesis of the Good Shepherd pick-up- I wished I could meet her for coffee!

  • jeanette

    Your reference to the point that “Young people are attracted to the joy which should be a hallmark of our faith” reminds me of a conversation I had once with a priest. He was remarking that a woman was saying to him, “The Church ought to do such and such” and he replied to her, “Why don’t you do that?” And the point is, if you want the “Church” to do or be something, you are part of the Church, so it can start with you. You can be the example to others. So, if you want a joyful Church, be joyful. If you want a holy Church, be holy. If you want a Church that hungers and thirsts for justice, you must hunger and thirst for justice. To sit back and say that you think the Church ought to be or do something is to take a passive stance and to point to the Church as something outside of yourself. To envision what it means to follow Jesus’ teachings and then to carry out that vision is to build up the Church. Young people need to see themselves within that process of building up the Church.

  • Cami

    I have to admit although I agree that joy is essential to living, must be experienced and shared among Catholics, and attracts those in need of Christ, I have a hard time finding it. We’ve moved 6 times in 5 years including 3 different states and I’ve been pregnant, nursing, or both for over 7 years. We’ve suffered a job lay-off, financial struggle (always), loneliness, marital stresses, disapproval from external family for our family size (including and especially the newest news of pregnancy #5), and have a generally small community of supportive family and friends. It’s hard. I feel like all I do is survive. And finding joy is hard. It happens but not as often as it should. If anyone here has ideas on how to find and infuse joy into our family culture despite life’s onslaught of hardships, I’m interested in improving in this area. I don’t want my kids remembering a childhood of stress with occasional joy, but rather… loads of joy! Maybe it’s because my husband and I spend so much time feeling badly about ourselves, that we aren’t doing life well enough. Maybe the black cloud is raining on our joy parade. I don’t know. What does joy look like in your homes, my Catholic sisters and brothers? How do you do JOY?

    • Colleen

      I’m with you. Just the word “joy” conjures up stress for me because it’s something the Church keeps talking about (for a few decades now). It’s often elusive and feels like a chase that never ends. It’s spoken of in such a way that you feel like you HAVE to have it or you’re somehow not living the Christian life well. But when you are a busy mom who is meeting everyone’s needs 24/7 the only word that fits is “exhausted”. I prefer the word “peace” and trying to achieve it to be a much more realistic goal. The only thing that gets me out of a stress funk is to read the writings of the Church Mystics. People who’ve conversed with Christ directly and what He’s said to them in return. Those help me remember why I’m doing all this. It’s for Christ, it’s for eternity, our home in heaven. It’s tough not to focus on the here and now but when I start drowning in our cultural pressures I make it a point to do spiritual reading from the mystics and I find that the peace comes back into my heart.

    • Christine

      Cami, My heart goes out to you. My family and I have moved a lot, too, so I know how hard and stressful it is.

      One thing that has transformed our family life is that we all have to say just one thing we are each thankful for during our prayer time. Now, during the day, I find myself looking for and noticing our blessings, thinking of what I’ll say that night. It has changed my outlook and been such a blessing.

      I will pray for you and your family!

    • yolanda

      Cami, my heart, too, goes out to you. I was pregnant 10 times in 10 years (#1 was 4 years old when we had our 4th). We, too, suffered several job losses, several moves (3 in 4 years, can’t even imagine doing 6 in 5), homelessness one summer (thankfully had a family member who could take me and the 4 children in, but my husband and I were separated by 800 miles that summer), and diagnosis of a serious chronic disease. Oh, and we nearly had to file bankruptcy not once, but twice. Those were hard years. There is not enough money in the world to induce me to go back to them.

      BUT! We did manage to find some joy amidst all of it. “United we stand, divided we fall” and “This, too, shall pass” were mantras that got us through that time as a couple. We made couple time a priority; we had no money for real dates, but we would make time to spend with each other after the kids were in bed). Also, I started taking care of myself better after #4 (I HAD to. My body was literally falling apart), which made a huge difference in my capacity for joy. If you can possibly take even 20 minutes a day after your husband gets home to take a walk outdoors or get in a quick workout (I have found lots and lots of free workouts available on YouTube–a massive variety that includes all lengths, types, ability levels, etc), you might find it really helps mental status, not to mention overall physical health. Feeling badly about how well you are doing life does nobody any good, least of all your children.

      Agree with the previous poster who mentioned gratitude as the key to joy. It can be hard to muster up when times are hard, but for me, knowing that there are so many people in this world who aren’t even able to keep their kids fed, warm, and safe, helped me be grateful for what we had, even when what we had was quite little by American standards. Access to running (hot!) running water and a toilet alone put us way above much of the rest of the world.

      Finally, these hard times WILL pass, and when they do, having gone through them will make you even more grateful for the relative abundance of time and resources you will have. Our kids are older now, and we only have two teenagers at home. It’s mind-boggling how much free time and how little housework I have nowadays, compared to the early years. Life has changed dramatically! It will for you, eventually, too.

  • J


    We need to be joyful Catholics, for sure. But, I think its important that we stand out in a crowd because of our faith, not in spite of it. Someone once said that we as Catholics should be perceived as such by others because of what we say and do. So, others see us speaking and acting with charity, dressing modestly, having a Mary statue in our yard, etc. Where do we derive our joy? From the knowledge that we are members of the one true church founded by Christ and the only church in which to obtain heaven. In my opinion we shouldn’t ever try to stand out by conforming ourselves to the world. Yes, I enjoy pretty much all of the examples that you mentioned in your piece. But I hope I stand out to others because of my inherently Catholic lifestyle not because I seem cool (which I definitely am not, lol!). To a large extent, if we are living an authentically Catholic life we are probably viewed as being irritating by a large number of people. As I like to say, if you are pleasing most of the people in your life, then you might want to take inventory and make sure you are making God happy. Something about if the world hates you just remember they hated me first, as said by our Lord.

    I enjoy your blog, Jenny. Keep up the good job of raising your crew! The oldest of my 10 children is 15; the youngest is due to make her entrance in a couple of months. The years really do fly by!


  • Mary’

    This is so good. The past few months, wandering about my neighbourhood park or attending some local Mom groups, I’ve had a few instances where someone discovers I go to church around the corner or that my daughter is going to go the Catholic school across the city. And they look at me and go “But…” And then stop themselves. But fill in the blank. “You came to the block party and drank beer.” “I like talking to you.” “I’m gay and you treat me like a human being.” And I just think how absolutely necessary it is to be in the world and just…chat with people. Be interested and interesting. Make them want to know more about you and make them want to share more with you and allow you to be a support to them. That moves mountains.

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