Papal advice: Hail Marys and humor

| Jonathan Liedl | February 11, 2020 | 0 Comments

Last month, the seminarians from Region 8 (Minnesota and the Dakotas) had the privilege of joining Archbishop Hebda, Bishop Cozzens, and the region’s other bishops for the beginning of their meeting with Pope Francis in the Apostolic Palace. After greeting each of us individually, the Holy Father shared some spiritual guidance with the gathered seminarians. “Keep your sense of humor, pray your rosary, and stay close to the Madonna,” he told us, before giving us his blessing.

What I found interesting about the pope’s advice was its combination of two dimensions that are normally set apart: piety and levity. It can be easy to view serious religious devotion and a kind of untroubled lightheartedness as disconnected; or, to even view them as different, opposing ends of some spectrum that we need to “balance out.” Looked at this way, religious devotion and a sense of humor don’t work together, but one merely corrects the excesses of the other.

I think this misses the mark. Rather than viewing piety and levity as unconnected or in tension, it’s probably more fruitful to reflect on the unity between them, a unity we see especially in the lives of the saints.

For instance, it’s no coincidence that a saint as lighthearted as St. Phillip Neri — the patron of laughter, humor, and joy — was known to levitate while celebrating the Mass. The same saint who could spend days on end absorbed in prayer also had a sign on his door that said, “The House of Christian Mirth.”

While it’s true that some of Neri’s humorous antics, such as shaving half his beard off or intentionally mispronouncing words in homilies, were employed as ways to curb his pride, the fact that he could treat himself in such an unserious way speaks to an already-present gratitude and deep trust in God. He had nothing to prove and was not weighed down by his own illusions and preconceptions, and could therefore hold himself gently in his pursuit of holiness.

Neri was known to have said, “The cheerful are much easier to guide in the spiritual life than the melancholy.” This isn’t a call to be “Pollyannas”—excessively cheerful and oblivious to the reality of sin in the world and our own lives. Rather, it’s a call to be deeply sorrowful for our sinfulness, but, therefore, even more joyful for the incredible, overwhelming and undeserved gift of God’s love and mercy.

As St. Phillip Neri and the saints show us, authentic piety and authentic levity can’t be opposed. If our purported lightheartedness is coupled with a lack of reverence and devotion, it’s probably better described as foolishness. And if our pious practices aren’t leading to a light-hearted humility, perhaps we’re not practicing real piety.

Piety and levity go hand in hand. When we are truly devoted to the Lord and recognize him as the ultimate source of our self-worth and value, we can’t help but feel a freedom and lightness of heart. And when we’re willing to stop taking ourselves so seriously, we’re most ready to turn to God in dependence and devotion.

The key isn’t a balancing act of two opposites, but an integration, becoming saints like St. Phillip Neri whose piety and levity blend together in the form of one overarching virtue: holiness.

Liedl is a seminarian in formation for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

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Category: To Home From Rome