Many Sour Saints

Pope Francis has made some statements regarding Catholic moods lately—admonishing clergy for having “sad, long faces”  and saying “Buenos dias” to religious who may have psychiatric problems.

Pope Francis has also said that “melancholy Christian faces have more in common with pickled peppers than the joy of having a beautiful life.” He added “Christian joy is a pilgrim joy that we cannot keep ‘bottled up’ for ourselves, or we risk becoming a ‘melancholy’ and ‘nostalgic’ community.” Frankly, it’s not joy I’m bottling, Sir.

Controversy over said remarks erupted on Fr. James Martin’s Facebook page, the maintenance of which must be one of Christendom’s largest pains in the butt. Despite his busy schedule, Fr. Martin is constantly there to answer questions, add clarification, and personally warn those who over-comment or go all ad hominem. Regarding the Pope’s statements on frowny clergy, some self-identified Catholics with Mood Disorders, or CMDs, were taken aback. Fr. Martin said that regarding the clergy, Il Papa was only protesting against the “frozen chosen” who are off-puttingly “negative and pessimistic.” I see Fr. Martin’s point. Last Ash Wednesday, the priest officiating was so icy-cold I shivered a little inside. I wondered, for the zillionth time, what on earth I was still doing in this clubhouse. Maybe I could join a religion where people are jolly. What is it again?

And yes, Your Holiness, joyful people may be the best advertisement that Catholicism could surely have. “I’ll have what they’re having,” the other 5/6 of the world’s population might think. I’d like to confess something: I may not radiate joy at all times. Is the Pope accusing me of having Bitchy Resting Face? If so, I would like to direct his attention to the scene in The Birds where Melanie Daniels pilots a motorboat across a bay. The most chilling thing about the scene isn’t that she’s showing up unannounced and uninvited at the home of a man she’s only met once, or that she has a cage of lovebirds in tow, or that she is wearing a fur coat at sea. It’s her expression, which is the serene smirk of the insane. Is this what CMDs should aspire to? Heaven help us.

No, let us remember that the gloomy, melancholic and terminally bummed have a special place at the Lord’s table. One thinks of Fr. Henri Nouwen, the abundantly sad Wounded Healer who filled books with his struggle against the dark. As an adolescent, St. Francis de Sales had to take to his bed, so convinced was he that he was destined for Hell. Then there’s the Lord’s “spouse of sorrow,” Blessed Clara Isabella Fornari. I have a special liking for St. Rose of Lima, who disfigured her face and lived in a shed in her parents’ backyard. Read between the lines on that one, friends.

I asked Kaya Oakes, author of Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church, what she thought of the kerfuffle. She astutely pointed out that gloom and Catholicism are not strange bedfellows. “After all,” she said, “we invented Lent.”

That’s the way, uh-huh uh-huh, Pope likes it, uh-huh uh-huh…

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Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.