“Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
A few nights ago, my son and I sat on the floor in his bedroom reading Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Around the World (Loyola Press). One of the children asked, “What more do you want to do in your life to make the world more beautiful and fair?” Pope Francis answered: “I would like to smile always—smile at God . . . to thank him for all the good he does for people.”
My son is more bubbly than champagne. His 6-year-old smile is marked by gaps of missing teeth and contagious joy. If I told him what I wanted for him was to smile always, he wouldn’t understand. He’d say, “Of course I am going to smile always, Mom,” because at age 6, he doesn’t know what’s coming yet. He doesn’t know that life is going to make happiness difficult.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have an obligation to it. At a recent Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis continued the imperative to joy, saying, “The identification card of a Christian is joy: the joy of the Gospel, the joy of having been elected by Jesus, saved by Jesus, regenerated by Jesus.”
Further, in A Church of Mercy, Pope Francis says, “And here the first word that I wish to say to you: joy! 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 of having encountered a Person: Jesus, in our midst.”
Clearly, there is no mistaking the directive to joy from the happy leader of our church. The question is, are we heeding the call? Are Catholics a joyful people? Would non-Catholics be attracted to our faith based on the smiles on our faces?
Joy and happiness, of course, are two different things. The Catholic Exchange offers this distinction: Joy is related to our state of being while happiness is an emotion. But if we reach a little farther back, we can see that the two words were not always so far apart from each other.
Apologist Peter Kreeft discusses the difference between our modern understanding of happiness and the ancient one. The Latin word for happiness, beatitudo, means “blessedness” and the Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia which, when broken down, means “good spirit in a permanent state.” The ancient version of happiness is closer to our understanding of joy.
Whichever word we want to use—happiness, joy, smiley face emoji—the fact remains that as Catholics, we could be happier. The lives we lead, no matter how challenging, should exhibit the fact that if God is in charge, our hearts are free to be joyful.
On a happiness scale from 1 to 10, I might not go to 11, but I’d probably rank pretty high. Call it lucky genetics. Like my dad before me and my son after me, my default button is happy, and the older I get, the more true this is. But that didn’t just happen on its own. The anxieties and shadows of my teens and 20s faded as my faith matured. Where there was mostly confusion and darkness, there is now more awareness of God working in my life.
But if I’m being honest, I would have to admit that my children would not always call me happy, especially at night when I’m tired and they are still awake. In those moments, I could channel a bit more of Pope Francis. And to those outside of my family, even with my propensity for happiness, I could certainly do better at showing the joy of my faith.
In a Top Ten List for Happiness, Pope Francis, a man who clearly has a happiness agenda, argues that we are not called to proselytize. “The church grows by attraction, not proselytizing,” he says. Since I have never been great at proselytizing, this is good news for me. The question is, am I good news for the world? Does my smile exhibit the joy of my faith, the light in my heart, the happiness of a person who knows Christ?
Not always, because the truth is that faith is a long game. The here and now are not always happy. Joy is promised to us, but mostly for later. If the Beatitudes have taught me anything, it’s that I have to be poor, meek, humble, and hungry before I get the kingdom of God. But if the promise is that I will get the kingdom and that God is here with me now, how can I keep from smiling?
As my son and I continued to flip through Dear Pope Francis, me sitting cross-legged, him shifting about with that joyful energy of his, I started wondering if his joy would see him through his teenage years, through the trials of figuring out who he is in his twenties, through settling into his adult life. In short, could he be joyful during all the things that happen in the first half of all the sentences of the Beatitudes?
Certainly, he won’t always be happy, at least not in the modern sense. But I hope his exquisite joy, that gift from God, never fades. That is my wish for him: that the joy and happiness that come so easily to him as a little boy will stay with him forever. And in those moments when he can’t find his smile, hopefully between me and Pope Francis he’ll find a model of how to get back to his own and a reminder that joy is the promise of heaven.
Molly Jo Rose’s column, In and Of the World, focuses on finding God’s goodness in the darkest places of the world.
Image: Molly Jo Rose