Joy – and Its Limitations

I recently read Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudium evangelii (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and was struck by the fact that it is just as much about joy as it is about the Gospel. If you ask Microsoft Word about the number of times “joy” appears in the text, it comes to 110.

This somewhat artificial mathematical tabulation jibes perfectly, however, with Francis’ persona. As the media happily report, he seems to be always exuding joy, like someone who gets up in the morning and can’t wait to go out there and fulfill all those papal duties.

Frankly, this makes me feel inadequate. The pope warns evangelizers not to look like they “just came back from a funeral.” I don’t think I am that type. I have been “surprised by joy” – to use C.S Lewis’ phrase. But I know persons who are like clones of Francis; and I am not like them.

There is an element of temperament in all this. Temperament is something we are born with. Aristotle, referring to Hippocrates’ classification of the “four temperaments,” says that the melancholic temperament is most naturally oriented to philosophy (my profession), and the melancholic person might find his happiness (?) in becoming a philosopher.

“Sanguine” and “phlegmatic” temperaments lack the motivation to go into deeper analysis of ideas and values. “Choleric” temperaments are more practical and action-oriented, making them good leaders or activists, but probably not strong thinkers.

A more recent theory by Harvard psychologist, William Sheldon, connects temperament with the three layers of the embryonic egg – endoplasm, mesoplasma, and ectoplasma – resulting in three body types and three temperaments – viscerotonic, somatotonic, and cerebrotonic, respectively.

The third of these temperaments converges somewhat with Hippocrates’ “melancholic,” and is said by Sheldon to be naturally oriented to introspection, scholarly and artistic pursuits – but is in stark contrast with the viscerotonic, who is naturally sanguine, outgoing, cheerful. I strongly suspect a viscerotonic person may have an easier time being Francis’ joyful extraverted missionary.

Of course, as we get beyond natural endowments into the realm of grace, the experience of joy becomes more nuanced. The “joyful mysteries” of the Rosary are also full of sadness. After the Annunciation, Mary – newly betrothed to Joseph – must have felt agony while waiting until the angel informed Joseph about the mystery of the Incarnation.

Or at the Nativity, does not the Bethlehem scene unfold in the context of innkeepers who could make no accommodation for a wife close to labor, and a world unready to welcome the King of the Jews?

The joy of the Presentation is thoroughly offset by Simeon’s prophecy that Mary’s soul will be pierced with grief. In the aftermath of the Presentation, the flight into Egypt to avoid assassination of the infant Jesus involved years of bare survival amid foreign people, language, and customs.

Our evangelical pope
Our evangelical pope

And can we imagine the grief and self-doubt felt by Joseph and Mary before they discovered the missing Jesus in the temple?

Still, Pope Francis has a point. Think of the Apostles and disciples, in the aftermath of the Resurrection, spreading out around the world to preach the Good News. They could, mutatis mutandis, be compared to reporters for news organizations, who have just come upon the most incredible “scoop,” and can’t wait to write it up, go on talk shows, give interviews, and continue spreading the message, going ever deeper into its details and ramifications.

The message of the Apostles and disciples, of course, was about forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eventual resurrection. Many of their “audiences” were ready for this news – disillusioned by pagan gods who were deaf and dumb, enjoying their bliss in Olympia unconcerned about earthly goings-on. Some among the Greeks were seeking the “unknown god” who always seemed so hidden and inaccessible. Some Jews were eager to welcome the long-expected Messiah.

Unfortunately, the audiences that contemporary evangelists have to deal with are often of a very different nature, especially in the “Western” world: Very busy, often very nice, but tuned completely to secular life.

Some, maybe, value family and relationships, but are not interested in God or religion. They simply have no time for religious practices, or for messages about a God-man who appeared on earth two millennia ago. They certainly don’t feel they are in need of “salvation.”

Or they may be “post-Christians” and “New-Agers” who think everyone will go to heaven – at least those who follow the “flow of the spirit,” and are nice to everyone. In any case, everyone will get there because God is so super-understanding and accepting, isn’t He?

So how do such persons respond to Christians who come to them full of Christian joy? They may be tolerant, but in so many cases the joy of the message turns out to be less than infectious. The material world, with its cares and pleasures, weighs down the spirit, and desensitizes it, and makes thoughts of transcendence and of life-everlasting seem unscientific fantasies.

If we look for the audience most oriented towards influence from the Gospel, it may be in the Middle and Far East. In my book The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct, I discuss the extraordinary and often miraculous development of “house churches” in China. And a recent book by David Garrrison, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is drawing Muslims around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ documents the underground and necessarily secret conversions to Christianity of hundreds of thousands of Muslims throughout the Middle East, in spite of ostracism and persecution and constant threats of execution.

But what about all the secularists, New Agers, atheists, and post-Christians? What “scoop” would get their attention? It’s hard to say. If the prophet Elias re-appeared joyfully announcing the Second Coming, it would universally be thought a case of mental instability. Can anyone imagine it would it make the front page of the New York Times?

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Michael Dowd

    Good column Professor Kainz. To me Christian joy is sober, is recollected, does not preen, is not fatuous, is attractive in a quiet and holy way. Christian joy comes from selflessness, self denial and patient suffering. This kind of joy is compellingly attractive but unfortunately rare. If our Church leaders could be more like this evangelization be so much more effective.

  • Michael Dowd


  • WSquared

    Thanks for writing this, Professor Kainz. I’m of a melancholic temperament, too. But I also wonder if introverts and extroverts express that joy in a different way. I don’t know if Pope Francis’s joy should really disturb anyone or make them feel inadequate. …because if it did, then Pope Benedict’s joy should disturb us, too, for the same reasons.

    There is a lot that is joyful in so much of what Pope Benedict writes: he gracefully combines intellectual profundity and precision with a very big heart. Fr. Robert Barron noticed that Benedict would mention joy– la gioia– a lot in his talks. No doubt about it, Benedict XVI was and is joyful. He’s just introverted, and a bit shy. So what? St. Therese of Lisieux was melancholic, also, and yet upon reading Story of a Soul, one senses her joy.

    Francis, like Benedict, does not mistake having joy for “having fun” (he said as much in one of his daily-Mass homilies). Moreover, I’m not sure any saint does– maybe saints do know that joy is… saltier, and, again, not the same as “having fun” (was St. Jerome not joyful, then?). And so what if Francis put on a clown nose in St. Peter’s Square to take a picture with a married couple– it’s not like he did it at Mass!

    As a matter of fact, Pope Francis is sober at Mass, and he knows exactly where his concentration should be (are we then to assume that he’s not “joyful” at Mass, even though he’s so clear in his profound love of Christ?). That’s not at all at odds with the “popular touch” that so many people warm to, which also seems to rub still others the wrong way.

    • Tarzan

      Nice contribution. Thanks. I especially like your observations on Pope Benedict. I feel the world didn’t quite get him, but history will show that he was a great leader for the Church. Very warm in his quiet way.

      • WSquared

        Perhaps one important takeaway here is that men of all kinds become the Successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ. The problem that arises whenever we have a new Pope is that people expect “regime change”– to use Ratzingerian terms, a “hermeneutic of rupture”– they don’t think of the Successors of St. Peter as Papal tag-teaming.

    • Loved As If

      “joy is… saltier, and, again, not the same as ‘having fun'”

      Thanks for this insight. I think I may have to quote you.

  • Tarzan

    I am part way through Gaudium Evangelii. I agree with Professor Kainz in what I have read. Life should be joyful, because eternity with God is the goal of life. I like Fr. Barron’s story where he uses his love of baseball as an analogy for evangelizing. Maybe for the post Christians we need to lead with Beauty, and show how Goodness and Truth necessarily follow. Being scolds just won’t do the job today.

    • Mark

      I think since there are many different types of people there must be many different approaches. The pope has shown one approach and that is good.

      Whatever approach one uses, one should never compromise the truth. When Fr. Barron says “we have a reasonable hope all men are saved” that contradicts Jesus’ words in numerous places in the Bible. It thus leads people into a false sense of security (presumption) and thus may be the most uncharitable thing one could do.

      Remember what Jesus said about those who would lead others astray: “it would be better for them to be thrown into the ocean with a millstone around their necks.”

  • Dennis Larkin

    I have known a number of very good Catholics, holy people all. Joy is not necessarily at the top of descriptors of these people. For some, their experience of Chrust is of “the Man of sorrows, accustomed to infirmity.” God honors our sorrows along with our joy. I’ve known many happy people, but how many were truly joyful I cannot say.

  • Bro_Ed

    I see a few references to “Pope Bergoglio” from time to time. Why do you do this? Are you denying he is pope by denying him his legitimate papal name, or is it just an off hand dismissal of him? I think it’s rude.

    • Pia

      It is he who still calls himself bergoglio and disrespects time-honored traditions of the Church

      • WSquared

        If he disrespects the traditions of the Church as much as you claim, then why is Monsignor Guido Marini still Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations (whereby Pope Francis remarked that he could learn from Msgr. Marini’s more traditional outlook), and why has he celebrated Mass ad orientem on occasion?

        You might consider reading Fr. Alan J. McDonald’s blog, “Southern Orders” (it’s worth googling). He notices the stuff that people and the media tend to miss.

      • Bro_Ed

        Don’t forget the parts about rooting out the corruption that plagues the Curia and our Church in general, getting the princes out of their princely mindsets and back to doing Jesus’ work as senor pastors, and (oh, yes) caring for the souls who have been unheard and unministered to by a rigid and sometimes self-involved hierarchy.

      • EWaughOk

        I did mention the “spin doctors on every side” in my post. Looks like you attracted them with your spot-on comment … Good for you!

  • Craig Roberts

    The pope just seems self-satisfied to me. Complacent and self-content. How can he not mourn over the state of the Church in the world today? In the west it is moribund and cannot defend things as basic as marriage. In the east it is slaughtered and helpless against the ‘religion of peace’. Sorrow may not attract followers but at least it appears knowing and honest in the face of real tragedy.

  • Thomas J. Hennigan

    It seems to me that Christian joy is not superficial glee. It is produced by the theological virtues. St. Paul could state that he rejoiced in his trubulations. Why? Because his faith and hope in the triumph of Christ already patent in his resurrection is eventually available to us. He is the “firstborn from the dead”. After all, death is the real problem and it is, according to Scripture, the result of sin. Christian joy is based on faith in the final triumph of Christ, and all of us in communion with him if we are faithful and true children of God in union with him. All of this began in baptism, which is the beginning of heaven. He even tells the Collossians that they are already where Christ is, which is not, of course a physical place. Yes there are occasions in which such joy is externalized, but there are also plenty of occasions for sorrow as we see so much evil in the world and realize that whilst the victory is already achieved by Christ, we are still living in hope and have to go through a valley of tears, but if we do so united to him then we will also finally triumph. We should also read the Apocalypse, which is a message of hope. St. Ambrose has a work about the death of his brother Satyrus who was extremely close to him. Whilst he consoles himself remembering the Christian message of the triumph of the resurrection, he does not fail to feel the sorrow of the parting of his dear brother.