Years ago a writer named Charles A. Reich wrote that few things bring more joy than the unexpected knock of a long-missed friend at your front door.
It’s a joy born of absence; of years spent apart, for one reason or another, from a friend who once may have been an integral part of your life. It’s joy based on the always-uplifting surprise of good news.
“I’m here; it’s been a long time; it’s great to see you.”
Pope Francis’ version of the new evangelization is one of joy. Its power lies in the seemingly ubiquitous smile that has graced the covers of news magazines and newspapers ever since the gregarious and holy nature of the new pope began to reveal itself.
Pope Francis has a difficult — and highly visible — job. That he can do it, that he can fulfill his obligations and tackle the difficulties facing the church with such obvious happiness is an amazing display of evangelism.
As Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said shortly after he was named to his post in the Archdiocese of Louisville, “the very least we can do is be happy” about our vocations, he said in an interview early in his time here. “We should be happy in Christ; people should see in our happiness that grace and joy that God the Father brings to us.”
There has already been much speculation about the appeal Pope Francis is having on Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and especially those Catholics who have, over the years, drifted away from the church.
There are reports that crowds visiting the Vatican have grown — an article in Rolling Stone magazine, the one with the pope’s picture on the cover — said attendance at papal events has tripled since he arrived in Rome. Other reports note that the numbers of people attending Masses in the U.S. and around the world have grown. And locally, when people talk about Pope Francis, the discussion involves enthusiasm, happiness and perhaps a bit of surprise.
His papacy, not yet a year old, has certainly been filled with surprises. But his apparent joy has been a constant, and it may very well be a remarkable tool for the new evangelization.
People want to share in happiness. They want to worship in places where people are joyful, not angry; hopeful, not forlorn.
The joy given to all of us by the grace of God, when on display, can be a mighty attraction — our pope and our archbishop are proving that.
And here’s another story that testifies to the veracity of this theory, this notion that the joy of the pope, the joy of Catholicism and Christianity, can evangelize.
A Catholic acquaintance recently wrote that despite quite a number of tribulations in her life, she’d adopted the motto that “everything will be OK in the end; and if it is not OK, then it isn’t the end.”
It’s another way to say she is profoundly optimistic because of her faith, which by any measure has been deep and abiding over the years.
The troubles she’s facing now involve the loss of a job; the sale of a house for less than its mortgage; a move across country necessitated by an illness in her immediate family and the need to care for parents on the cusp of old age.
“But God has been good to me through the years,” she exclaimed in a recent message. “I don’t know how everything will turn out, but I know I’m blessed. It will be OK in the end, and if it’s not OK, then it’s not the end.”
For every melancholy story that ends happily, we all know there are others that have much sadder conclusions. But faith that things will be OK in the end IS a blessing in and of itself. And a faith that asks us to live the Gospel, to reach out to one another when help is needed, is a blessing. We all know that the more we give, the more we receive — we’ve been taught that, have learned that, over the years.
And right now as this is being written, a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headed by its president, our own Archbishop Kurtz, is visiting the people of the Philippines, many of whom lost home, job and family to last November’s typhoon. Catholic Relief Services, as they always do, responded quickly to the needs of those whose lives were devastated by the storm.
Yet photographs sent back to the archdiocese from Archbishop Kurtz often show a remarkable consistency. In photo after photo, people whose lives have been dramatically altered are shown smiling as they greet those who’ve come to help.
Just as Pope Francis has smiled from the Vatican balcony as he asked us to remember the poor, the hurting, the forgotten and the needy, the souls reached by Archbishop Kurtz and others in his delegation have been made to smile. A helping hand has, we can all hope, made their lives a little better.
And a smiling face can evangelize the good work of the church, and the Good News of the Gospel.