by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Each year at Easter and Christmas, Mother Ingeborg Rohner, the retired provincial of the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George, sends me a mechanical toy.
Mother Ingeborg is an extraordinary woman with great spiritual depth, exceptional wisdom, and an excellent sense of humor.
She discerned a call to religious life in post-World War II Germany. Her parents and her only sibling had been killed in the Allied bombing of Berlin. She came to the United States as a young religious Sister, earning degrees in both nursing and theology. One of the virtues that I admire most in Mother Ingeborg, who shouldered some heavy responsibilities for her community during very challenging times, is her joy.
On Palm Sunday this year, Pope Benedict, who also discerned his vocation to the priesthood during the traumatic environment of post-World War II Germany, promulgated his “Message for World Youth Day.” The theme of his message was based on St. Paul’s exhortation to the Christian commu- nity at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” (Phil 4:4) The pope instructed the church’s young people: “Joy is at the heart of the Christian experience.”
In his message, the Holy Father re- minded the Catholic youth of the world that: 1) our hearts are made for joy;
2) God is the source of true joy; and
3) joy is intimately linked to authentic love. The Holy Father then noted the false happiness with which the world apart from God seeks to entice us: “Our present-day culture often pressures us to seek immediate goals, achievements and pleasures. It fosters fickleness more than perseverance, hard work and fidelity to commitments. The messages it sends push a consumerist mentality and promise false happiness. How many people are surrounded by material possessions yet their lives are filled with despair, sadness and emptiness! To have lasting joy we need to live in love and truth. We need to live in God.”
The pope reminded Catholic youth of the simple, but important, truth that God wants us to be happy. It is because the Lord desires our happiness that he gave us the commandments — specific directions for our life. The command- ments are not limitations that seek to prevent our happiness. Rather, they are protective guard rails that are aimed to prevent us from hurting ourselves.
The Holy Father wrote: “At first glance, they (the commandments) might seem to be a list of prohibitions and an obstacle to our freedom. But if we study them more closely, we see in the light of Christ’s message that the commandments are a set of essential and valuable rules leading to a happy life in accordance with God’s plan. How often, on the other hand, do we see that choosing to build our lives apart from God and his will brings disappointment, sadness, and a sense of failure? The experience of sin, which is the refusal to follow God and an affront to his friendship, brings gloom to our hearts.”
Pope Benedict acknowledged how the Christian life is not always easy.
There are many obstacles to being faithful to God’s love and inevitably
we fall. Then, the pope reminded the church’s youth: “Yet God in his mercy never abandons us; he always offers us the possibility of returning to him, being reconciled with him and experiencing the joy of his love which forgives and welcomes us back.” The Holy Father urged young people to take advantage of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. He called it “the sacrament of joy rediscovered.”
Each Easter season is an invitation by God to rediscover the joy of God’s love for us. It is time to cherish anew the pearl of great price that was given to us on the day of our baptism. Our Lord not only offers, but promises, abundant life and the fullness of joy to his disciples. Our faith gives us the abil- ity to see beauty and cause for rejoicing in the simple and the ordinary. The gift of our Christian faith also empowers
us to persevere faithfully in our commitments to family and friends, thus allowing us to taste the sweet joy that results from authentic love. Our faith offers us a joy that remains with us and carries us through the Good Fridays of our lives.
In his message to young Catholics, Pope Benedict cited a couple of ex- amples of contemporary individuals who achieved sanctity at an early age. One such example was a young Italian woman, Chiara Badano, who died from cancer in 1990 at the tender age of 19. Chiara, while suffering greatly from her disease, prayed for other young people that the Holy Spirit would give them wisdom and light. In writing to her spiritual mentor, Chiara said: “It was really a moment of God’s presence. I was suffering physically, but my soul was singing!” The key to Chiara’s peace and joy, even in the midst of her physical suffering, was her trust in God and her ability to accept her own illness as something that God could use for good — not only for her, but for others. She often prayed: “Jesus, if you desire it, then I desire it too.”
Pope Benedict concluded his message to the world’s youth by challeng- ing them to be witnesses, missionaries, of joy. The Holy Father observed: “Christianity is sometimes depicted as a way of life that stifles our freedom and goes against our desires for happiness and joy. But this is far from the truth. Christians are men and women who are truly happy because they know that they are not alone. They know that God is always holding them in his hands. It is up to you, young followers of Christ, to show the world that faith brings happiness and joy, which is true, full and enduring.”
Frequently, at the beginning of my Easter or Christmas homilies I will give a brief demonstration of my most recent gift from Mother Ingeborg. It never fails to gain the congregation’s attention from the youngest to the oldest. This year, in the sacristy before the Easter Vigil, our Cathedral servers were eager to show me that they pay attention to my homilies. They gave me a mechanical toy chicken, wearing an Easter bonnet with rabbit ears, which performs a rather animated version of the chicken dance.
Our Catholic faith permits us to enjoy something as silly as a mechani- cal toy and provides us with something so profound that gives us joy even in the midst of the most difficult suffering. Pope Benedict’s Palm Sunday message did not really have an age limit on its applicability. We are all called to be missionaries of joy. Authentic joy witnessed in the everyday circumstances of life has an irresistible attraction. Christian joy has the power to convert and transform the gloom of a godless world.