An appreciation for humor, irony, and laughter are authentic signs of a Christian, I believe, since we are only able to truly laugh—to laugh with joy, not the nervous bluster of the arrogant or insecure—because in Jesus Christ we see the definitive answer to the otherwise confounding inanity and tragedy that so often mark our world. The frustrations, sufferings, embarrassments, and missteps that leave many people who have no faith despondent can be seen by Christian believers as part of the irony of human existence.
We have the chance to see a bit of “divine humor” in today’s readings when Paul, having just made one of the most dramatic religious conversions in history, from Pharisaical Judaism to Christianity, struggles to find acceptance among his new Christian fellows. “When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). One can hardly blame those who shunned Paul’s first inroads into the Church community; after all, till recently, he had been an energetic persecutor of these very same Christians. Still, his situation has something of a tragi-comic cast to it as he tries to meet and affirm new friends in Christ while they desperately flee from him. Some earnest intervention from Barnabas saved the day for Paul, and he eventually became a pillar of the early Christian Church.
The humor we might find in Paul’s plight in Jerusalem gives us a chance to reflect on coming into the Church and the way we are welcomed when we try to do so. Catholics are rightly proud of our home parishes and churches, our schools, our Altar Guilds, Men’s Clubs, and our CYO leagues, all of which ought to remind us of the catholicity and universality of the Church. Yet we may have experienced less than an opened-armed welcome at one point or another when joining a new parish or a group within our parish. Catholics are famous for this sort of territoriality, which is very often built on lines of ethnic identity and which can be seen in the proliferation of small Catholic churches in an ethnically rich area like our own.
A sure way to celebrate our rightful Catholic identity and to make sure that it does not become parochial or unwelcoming is to see to it that our identity is rooted first in Christ, “the true vine” (John 15:1) and then in the more particular cultural or regional expressions of our Christian identity. This proper ordering of values gives the Church its catholicity—the unity in diversity that has been part and parcel of its existence from the earliest days and which continues to strengthen the Church today.
The “mark” of catholicity (do you remember the four “marks” of the Church?) should be kept in mind both when we graft ourselves onto a new branch of the Church by joining a new parish or Catholic organization, and when we encounter others trying to make their way in the Church. If we do this faithfully we show that we properly understand the relationship between Christ, the vine, and the many branches that make up his living body, the Church. Welcoming others into the Church is eventually part of the experience of every Catholic, and doing so consciously is a sharing in the apostolic work Paul himself began with great difficulty in Jerusalem. His evangelical efforts eventually paid off in spite of his humorous misadventures, and ours will be sure to “bear much fruit” (John 15:8) if we keep our eyes centered on Christ.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Illustration : Angelos Akotantos. Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece. 15th Century