After taking a break from it last week for Easter, I do want to get back to the Pope’s examination of conscience for the Roman Curia, even though it is starting to feel like a long time ago (years and years ago, in internet time). I am a stubborn contrarian, though, and have the weird idea that things don’t cease to be relevant because they were spoken or written sometime before last week. The speech continues to be a good examen for all of us for our lives.
We are up to disease number twelve out of fifteen. This is the “disease of a lugubrious face. Those glum and dour persons who think that to be serious we have to put on a face of melancholy and severity, and treat others – especially those we consider our inferiors – with rigour, brusqueness and arrogance.
“In fact, a show of severity and sterile pessimism are frequently symptoms of fear and insecurity. An apostle must make an effort to be courteous, serene, enthusiastic and joyful, a person who transmits joy everywhere he goes. A heart filled with God is a happy heart which radiates an infectious joy: it is immediately evident! So let us not lose that joyful, humorous and even self-deprecating spirit which makes people amiable even in difficult situations. How beneficial is a good dose of humour!”
Now, let’s be clear here. The Pope is not talking to people who are undergoing real trials and sorrows and grief, callously enjoining them to ‘cheer up’. He certainly is not referring to people suffering from clinical depression. Nor is he thinking of people who simply have somewhat grave personalities, who tend to be more often serious than not.
Pope Francis is not an idiot—obviously he knows that there is real suffering and affliction in the world that can weigh a person down severely. He also knows that it takes all kinds to make a world, and that those of a more melancholic temperament in fact make a great contribution to the human experience.
That being said, I think we all have experienced what he is really talking about here, which is less to do with real sufferings or inborn temperament and more to do with a choice to assume a grim and pessimistic attitude towards life, a glum and dampening attitude adopted out of some ridiculous idea that ‘this is what serious people are like.’
It is the element of artifice, of show, the kill joy spirit, the person who walks into a room where people are laughing and having a good time together and sees it as their principal job to put an end to that nonsense—this is what Pope Francis is talking about, I think. And the good Lord knows this can certainly be present in church circles, though not only there for sure.
But even for those who do have naturally melancholic temperaments, there is a need to choose joy—real joy is not after all a matter of personality and emotional bubbliness, but a matter of faith and hope. Is Christ risen from the dead? Are we redeemed by His love poured out as blood? Is the victory won? Is anything we say we believe actually, you know, true? Then perhaps we could crack a smile once in a while, eh?
It is a bit difficult for me to write about this, since I don’t actually suffer much from melancholy and I certainly have never experienced depression first hand. I do tend to have a natural ebullience of spirit, and (as those who live with me suffer from as much as enjoy) a lively sense of humour. It is difficult to write about struggles one does not personally have. Pope Francis himself, in an earlier period in his life, seems to have had this struggle himself, and had a reputation for being a dour, severe cleric (this is hard to believe given his present demeanour and mien, but I have heard this from multiple sources).
But whether this is something you or I have to grapple with or not, the bottom line is that truly Christ is risen, that the victory against sin and death and evil has been won (appearances to the contrary, I will acknowledge), and that those of us who count ourselves as Christians have a duty to reflect the joyful truth we believe in our words, our behaviour, our countenances. Not as a fake thing we have to pretend (Put on a happy face! Smile, though your heart is breaking!), but please God as something that comes out of our real conviction about the true nature of reality.
Such is the duty of a Christian who wants to preach the Gospel with his or her life, and so we have to be vigilant about this disease of glum severity and ‘sterile pessimism’. Let's put an end to that nonsense, and take on the serious business of joyful Christian witness in the world.