A Saint’s Joyful Wit, The Anchor, December 18, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
December 18, 2009

Because of his work in the confessional, preaching on conversion, heroic life of fasting and little sleep, battles against the devil, and crusades against indecent dancing and the taverns, many presume that St. John Vianney would have been a rather dour saint. That, however, would be far from the truth. Those who knew him testified that he was always affable, cheerful and smiling, a ray of sunshine that never ceased to brighten other’s spirits.

Since we just celebrated Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of joy, I thought it would be a good time to focus on the joyful sense of humor of the patron saint of priests.

St. John Vianney was by no means a comedian, but he learned how to appreciate a good laugh growing up in a happy home. When he would be out doing work on the farm with siblings and friends, he sought to make that time enjoyable and learned a peasant’s sense of comic irony. During his time as a priest, he discovered that jocularity was often a very useful way to package some messages that, if stated directly, might wound others’ sensibilities.

To a corpulent woman who asked him what she must do to get to heaven, for example, he retorted with a smile, “Keep three Lents!”

To a rotund man who asked for his prayers and said, “I will try to hang onto your cassock when God comes to bring you to heaven,” the Curé of Ars found a similar opportunity: “Whatever you do, my friend, please don’t do that! The entrance to heaven is narrow and so the two of us would get stuck at the gate!”

In both cases, the recipients learned that the best way to prepare for the eternal wedding banquet was not by banqueting each day here on earth.

Certain women had been pestering him for months to be invited to the rectory for dinner. It was easy for him, and for all the other residents in the village, to size up the purpose behind their request: they desired the status of becoming special friends of the pastor. He routinely made excuses based on his schedule, but they never got the hint. When he couldn’t take it any longer, he thought that the only way to stop their badgering him was to accede to their request and give them a meal at his table they would never forget. If they wanted to share his life so as to be able to talk about it with others, he’d give them plenty to talk about.

When the three village busybodies arrived, he sat them at his very simple table. He told them that for this august occasion, he had gone out shopping — and had bought several pieces of blackened bread from the beggars from whom he was accustomed routinely to exchange food for meals. For victuals, he played the part of sommelier serving them the best vintage of God’s abundant water.  For conversation, he brought out large folios of the Lives of the Saints and had the women read aloud the hagiographies of some of the most abstemious and penitential men and women in the history of the Church.

It was certainly a soirée to remember! Unsurprisingly, none of the women asked to be invited to his table again.

The Curé of Ars used was accustomed to use humor in order to arrest loquacious ladies in mid-sentence. To one woman who used to drive him and everyone else crazy by repeating the same long-winded stories no matter the context, he asked, “My daughter, what is the month of the year when you speak the least?” She stopped her story to think about the answer before responding that she had no idea. St. John Vianney didn’t miss a beat: “It must be the month of February, because it has three fewer days than the others!” She took the hint without taking offense.

Another woman wanted to make an appointment with him outside of the confessional to talk about her spiritual life. After others said it was impossible because of his schedule, she called out to him, “Father, I have traveled 500 miles to see you!” The saint replied, “It wasn’t worth the trouble to come so far for that.” “But Father,” she continued, “I have not yet been able to see you!” “You haven’t missed much,” he retorted. “Father, only a word!,” the woman persisted. “My little one,” he rejoined, “you have already spoken twenty!”

Another lady — I think a pattern’s being established! — grabbed him and said, “Father, I have been here three days and I have not yet been able to speak to you.” The saint replied, humorously and prophetically, “In heaven, my child, we shall talk in heaven!” Some things, he kindly allowed to be inferred, are worth waiting for.

He also used humor to respond to questions that flowed from people’s curiosity while masquerading as faith. One woman ask, “Father, is my husband in purgatory?” The Curé retorted, “I haven’t been there, daughter!” A young woman approached him, saying, “I wish you would tell me what my vocation is.” “Your vocation, my child… ” he replied, with a master storyteller’s delivery, “is…,” he gave a lengthy pause, “to go to…,” he waited and then emphasized, “heaven.”

Much of his best humor was of the humbly self-deprecating kind. When asked once to describe himself at a gathering of clergy, many of whom were seeking positions of importance, he said, “I am like the zeros that have value only when they are next to other numbers.”

During this Year for Priests, one thing that priests and all the faithful can learn from St. John Vianney is the importance of humor. The “recovery of spiritual sanity will have humor as one of its signs,” says Fr. George Rutler, a Vianney biographer, priest of the Archdiocese of New York, and simply one of the most brilliant and funny priests in the country. In his recent book “The Crisis of Saints,” Fr. Rutler describes what humor is, why it has a crucial role in the Church’s mission of sanctification, why St. John Vianney had a good sense of humor, and why the Church today needs humor more than ever.

“Humor is among other things the perception of imbalance as imbalanced and the appreciation of incongruity as incongruous,” Fr. Rutler writes. “Self-absorbed observers are not observers at all, and so they tend to humorlessness; they lack a platform in reality from which to measure the lack of measure around them.” St. John Vianney was not self-absorbed in the least and had such a platform.

“In the present life of culture, and certainly in this moment of the Church, extremists on the left and on the right have a common inability to laugh at themselves,” Fr. Rutler continues. “Healthy jokes are to them like a strange sound frequency to a dog: they turn their heads, they look distressed, but they do not laugh. The years after Vatican II, which were supposed to bring fresh air to the Church, did not bring fresh laughter. We do not expect humor in encyclicals; but incidental works of apologetics are unwell when humor is totally absent. Something is very wrong when the only humor in diocesan newspapers is unintentional.” (This points to why one of my first decisions upon being named Anchor executive editor was to ask Fr. Tim Goldrick to write a weekly column!)

“What is worst about the manners of our times,” Fr. Rutler says, “is the awkwardness of attempts at humor that laugh at things balanced and congruous. As this takes its course, laughter will not be the only lost gift: there will be no gift of tears in the confessionals and no gift of singing at the altars. And all because we took seriously the most incongruous notion that we had finally balanced the world.”

The results, Fr. Rutler warns, can be deadly: “From such an implausible view of life, the only thing that makes people laugh is cruelty: cruelty to the beautiful, cruelty to the truthful, cruelty to the good.”

St. John Vianney had a plausible, truly Christian, view of life and through his humor demonstrated that the Gospel was actually “good news of great joy for all the people.”