“Serve the Lord with laughter.”
It’s a quote from a favorite and incredibly popular saint that might surprise us, for the man who spoke these words was so deep, profound, and intentional that we might overlook the fact that he laughed. When we think of St. Padre Pio, we often instead focus on the deep wounds in his hands—the stigmata which he bore for 50 years—or his ability to levitate, speak with his guardian angel, read souls, or bilocate.
Laughter seems too ordinary, perhaps, for sanctity.
And yet, as a practical jokester and manager of mischief, I am drawn to this quote deeply—for I feel a personal apostolate of joy and am experiencing that call more starkly in a season in my life marked by exhaustion, stress, and transition.
Some of my favorite saints and quotes from Scripture focus on the theme of joy. When asked to speak to a group at Theology on Tap several years ago, I chose “The Serious Call to Joy” as my topic. I love Psalm 34, which reads, “Look to him that you may be radiant with joy.” And I often meditate on Christ’s words to his disciples: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). Finally, a patron of our family is St. Philip Neri, who was lovingly nicknamed “Apostle of Joy.” My son John Philip was even born on his feast day and shares his name.
When I think of what I want to be called after my death, I can’t think of anything better than that title given to St. Philip Neri (apart from, perhaps, being known as the Patron Saint of Bacon). To me, joy just seems like the natural fruit of holiness—a sure sign of a deep and profound relationship with Christ.
Pope Francis himself has noted this—dedicating an entire encyclical to the joy of the Gospel. He made waves when publishing the encyclical because he said there was no room in evangelization for “sourpusses”—the first time any such term has appeared in a papal document.
He explains, “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties.”
I think now of joy perhaps because I’m seeing so little of it in general. The world seems bogged down by burdens greater than we think we can bear. And being 8 months pregnant, I find myself a bit bogged down physically and emotionally, too. But, Pope Francis reminds us that the joy of Christ is possible even in the midst of our suffering and hardship. This does not diminish our suffering, nor does it erase or ignore it, but points out that Christian joy can transcend and transfigure suffering.
So, when I came across Padre Pio’s quote on his feast day earlier this month, it was a powerful reminder of my call to laughter—or at least of my commitment to being an apostle of joy.
Pope Francis continues, “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.” (EG, 6)
The knowledge that I am infinitely loved despite my frailty and littleness, especially in this season of pregnancy, is what beckons me ever onward.
If I think of my life right now, I don’t know how else to keep going other than by laughing. I look down to find crumbs and stains dotting my bulging belly. My goal most days is not to waddle while walking. I find myself stopping mid-sentence because I forgot my train of thought or walking into a room to get something just to leave puzzled, muttering to myself. Turning over in bed practically requires the use of a crane. And I face my staircase each day with the determination of one climbing Mt. Everest.
Humor aside, if we turn to Scripture, we find a love story saturated with calls and invitations to joy. From the Old Testament to the New, God speaks to us throughout salvation history because he wants to restore his creation to be “man fully alive.” For me, someone who is “fully alive” is a person of joy that radiates love wherever they go.
As our world and society continue to navigate times of hardship, transition, and injustice, and as you personally continue to navigate your own crosses (whether they be staircases or not), I invite you to ask St. Padre Pio and other holy men and women to help teach you the secret of joy that comes from “the certainty that Jesus is with us and with the Father.”
May we all become apostles and ambassadors of joy to a world thirsting for Christ’s love and may we find creative and nourishing ways to serve the Lord with laughter.
As Pope Francis quotes Paul VI saying,
“Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that ‘delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ.’”