Gospel Joy: Communicating the Joy of the Gospel today

Gospel Joy: Communicating the Joy of the Gospel today

“I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11).

In a bar the other day, I was with somebody who had never met a friar before. At one point they said something along the lines of “he’s pretty funny, how come he’s a monk?” Now there’s a few of my brethren who might dispute the truth of the first half of statement, particularly after another bad pun. However, it’s the implicit sentiment that ought to be cause for concern. Why would somebody presume that laughing a lot and being funny were unsuitable qualities for somebody who has chosen religious life? How must the message be perceived, if the messengers are expected to be glum?

Clearly we’re doing something wrong. Perhaps the media portrays us as gloomy, perhaps they make out that our “good news” is nothing more than a restrictive set of morals? Pope Francis notes that some Christian lives “seem like Lent without Easter” (EG6). But this need not be the dominant narrative. Each one of us can change this and there are enough of us to make a real impact.

Joyful Dominicans with Pere Pierre of the Nobertines at the Monastery of
Our Lady of Sarrance, France
My favourite of the dismissals in the Revised Translation of the Mass is “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life”. It strikes me that this command is at the heart of the solution. If we radiate the joy proper to people who have just participated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, if we allow the Gospel to sculpt our hearts, and if we do not hide our faith away, other people will surely start to ask, “How can these people restrained by this ‘rigid morality’ be so joyful? Might there be more to it?” Then we can be ready to give an account for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), we can explain –in the words of Benedict XVI, which Pope Francis says he never tires of repeating (for they are the very heart of the Gospel) –, that: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (EG 7).

Pope Francis is an example to us all in this. He has quickly gained a reputation for being a warm and joyful presence. Yet when asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”, his response was: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

His joy stems neither from deluding himself that he is not a sinner, nor from deluding himself that there is no such thing as sin, but rather from a trust in the infinite mercy of the Lord. The joy of knowing that Christ came to save us from our sins. As the Holy Father says, “God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart.”  We have good news for people and Jesus commands us not to keep it to ourselves. Pope Francis tells us that we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”; we need to move “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”. This task continues to be a source of immense joy for the Church: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7)(cf. EG 15).

Obviously for Dominicans, as members of the Order of Preachers, we ought to be out there preaching the message of joy that God loves each one of us. However, that command at the end of Mass is to all of us, and where the clergy are commanded to go, the laity already live and work. The New Evangelisation is the responsibility of us all and we must work together to achieve it.

The view from Fanjeaux – Mission territory for St Dominic
and the early Dominicans

Let us not wait, though, until we are perfect to start telling people about the Good News: the need for the Joy of Gospel to be taken outside the Church means we don’t have time for that! Let us strive to become more perfect along the way. We will be called hypocrites when we fail to live up to the standards we strive for, and we must be humble and ask for forgiveness when this happens. As Julia says in Brideshead Revisited:  “the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy.” We must not, though, dismayed by our frequent short-comings, succumb to the temptation to believe that the difficult parts of the Faith ought to be dropped or given up on. Those who do this harm themselves and the unity of the Church in its Mission; they sell themselves short and undermine those striving to uphold the fullness of the Church’s teachings. Perfection gained at the cost of lowering our aim is a shallow victory indeed. Perhaps it is in holding to our values, but with a renewed humility at our failures, a joyful admission of our faults, knowing that as we do so we come closer to Christ, that we will be the visible signs of a contradictory joy that the world needs? Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP speaks of how we need “to labour make the Church a place of evident freedom, courage, joy and hope. Truth matters. But our words will be useless unless they are embedded in communities which show how they are pointed beyond us, to the one who has sought out and given us his Word.” That’s a challenge to all of us, but the challenge to be more joyful, more free, sounds like one worth taking on.

Toby Lees OP

Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London.