A reading from the holy gospel according to John.
My Father is glorified by this,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
As the Father has loved me,
so I have loved you;
abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments,
you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and abide in his love.
I have said these things to you
so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.
The gospel of the Lord.
In an address to seminarians and novices, Pope Francis said this: “I want to say one word to you and this word is ‘joy.’ Wherever there are consecrated people... there is joy, there is always joy!” I was stopped dead in my tracks by these words. As somebody who has lived in religious life now for a few decades now, I wanted to raise my hand and object. After all, there are sourpusses and self-righteous people in religious life, just as there are in other walks of life. I can think of men and women I’ve known who lived the vowed life in mechanical, bloodless, rigid or stern ways, their human growth stunted, their spirits imprisoned, their office and ministries no more than grim duty to themselves and to others. Heck, I can be a sourpuss myself sometimes.
Yet I can also think of people who have flourished in this life, people who exude passion or compassion, kindness or serenity, people who have been wise mentors or selfless friends to me. So the more I’ve pondered Francis’ words, the more I think he is on to something. There is, I believe, a deep connection between religious life and the gift of joy.
One might think that Francis was just being hospitable to the crowd in front of him, that it was just an endearing way of embracing the native enthusiasm and energy of young people. But, if there is anything we know about this pope by now, it is that joy is one of his characteristic themes. He took the name of the patron saint of joy. He radiates joy in his personal presence. He speaks of it again and again in his writing and speaking and preaching. His first major text was devoted to this theme. The opening lines of that document say, “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.... With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”
To religious he says, “Joy is not a useless ornament. It is a necessity, the foundation of human life.” “A necessity, the foundation of human life....” Sometimes we think of joy as just the gravy that, if we’re lucky, steals in on us from time to time, on special occasions, a fleeting gift on those rare days when the stars are aligned and all the challenges of life give us a momentary rest. But the pope has something else in mind. His claim is that the Christian life, the life of the disciple of Jesus, is fundamentally a life of joy. What is that? It is, I think, the sweetness of meeting the living God. And once you’ve tasted it, you will never forget it, you will never be the same, and nothing else will satisfy. It fires the deepest regions of the heart, ignites the imagination, and impels the will. Joy is not earned, only yielded to as gift from the One whose love is utterly total, unconditional, and unrelenting.
Dennis and Matt, you have already brought much to our lives in Holy Cross. I could recount your impressive accomplishments in the classroom, in the pulpit, in ministering to God’s people. I could tell of your wit and conviviality at table, your personal warmth and your many incredible gifts. I could also tell stories that ought to assure your personal humility for at least a few years to come....
But, as you stand at the brink of permanent commitment, the final confirmation of your vocation is that both of you clearly live this life with joy. This is to say nothing more nor less than that God is in you, allowing you to live this way of life both receiving and giving free gift. By their joyful quality your lives invite the rest of us to meet the living God and cast all else aside for the joy of knowing Him. So the vows you will profess tomorrow are really not about you, your needs, your talents, your generosity – as real as those are – but about God’s goodness in reaching out to us in a union of hearts, minds, and wills. Joy relieves us from taking ourselves too seriously, in either our strengths or our limitations. Joy makes otherwise crazy things possible.
We can do no more this weekend than to charge you – plead with you – to live your life in Holy Cross as a life of joy. Religious life has as many temptations to counterfeit joys as any other life. Don’t be lulled into them. It is only real, unfeigned joy that can make this a life of freedom and generosity, rather than a life of burden and sacrifice. It is only joy that makes it a life worthy of our baptism, which is to say, worthy of the joyful Christ himself. And it is only joy that makes it possible for us to shoulder the Cross, indeed to embrace it willingly as itself a gift. For it was Jesus’ own joy in his Father’s love that sustained him in the darkness and led him to expect a bright new day.
You too will have dark days, trials, sufferings, sadness, as well as exquisite moments of intimacy, fulfillment, and surprising blessings. Keep the fire of joy alive, the sweet joy of meeting Jesus, and you will not lose hope. Remember that our Founder, and those who have walked this path before you, “did not trudge; they strode. For they had the hope.”
Fr. Michael Connors, C.S.C., is Director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a priest in residence at Carroll Hall.