Many, many years ago, when I was a young and inexperienced Campus Minister at Saint Michael's College in Winooski, Vermont, I met a Sister of Mercy who had a profound effect on my stance as a lay person working with young adults. A profound effect – even though I didn't quite know it at the time.
Her name was (and is) Sister Anne Curtis, and she hailed from Rochester, New York. She's one of those humble, courageous, warrior saints, a woman of great grace, moving quietly among the faithful. We used to have long conversations, the two of us, on how to engage young people in the faith.
I vividly remember, even after more than thirty years, a dialog the two of us had about ministry, where we were trying to narrow down our ideas and our enthusiasms into a single word.
"For me," said my friend Anne, "the most important word is Joy. It is the most important aspect of my religious life."
And now, almost two generations later, I am able to say, in agreement with Sister Anne Curtis, R.S.M., that indeed, the most important word in my own philosophy of ministry is also: Joy.
Joy makes faith real. Joy gives us something far more tangible to sink our teeth into, something far more important than any of the trappings this world can offer. Joy makes the gospel a living reality, a vital stance. A joyful liturgy can turn even the most disastrous scenario into an opportunity for hope.
Even sorrow cannot escape the grasp of Joy, for sorrow is, as Gibran once said, "your joy unmasked." Sorrow still implies a deeply lived life, a passionate stance. We should not fear sorrow. Fear, rather, and keep at bay their secular cousins: apathy and cynicism. For they are poison.
Over the years, I have become more and more convinced that joy holds the key to prayerful liturgy. Joy puts the gospel into an unbridled stance of prophetic witness, a chance to say: "I DARE YOU to stay on the sidelines!" Few people can resist Joy.
These past two months at Notre Dame have been some of the most profoundly demanding of my years in Campus Ministry. Yet, throughout these weeks, if there is anything that has been my compass point in the midst of the labors, it has been the ability to cling to Joy. Every liturgy we have done, from Dublin Castle to Maynooth Seminary, from Mepkin and my eldest son's wedding to Notre Dame's Freshman Orientation Mass, from the Game Day Mass at Holy Name Cathedral last Saturday to the Board of Trustees Mass yesterday morning in a small, carpeted conference room – for every one of these, the compelling invitation is a call to Joy.
Last week, we sang a hymn that has a sly last verse – a sneak reference to the Joy of the Incarnation, a quick allusion to the hallowed Christmas Carol "Joy to the World." It's an ingenious way to remind us that the Joy of the Nativity encompasses a far greater landscape than the days surrounding the winter solstice. Here is the text:
Gracious Spirit, help us summon other guests to share this feast
Where triumphant Love will welcome those who had been last and least.
There no more will envy blind us nor will pride our peace destroy,
As we join with saints and angels to repeat the sounding joy.
"Repeat the sounding joy." That is what we do. Repeat it, practice it, get it strong in our hearts and on our lips and in our minds. Repeat it over and over again, like a song we're rehearsing, until we sing it well – really well.
In all my years with my musicians in the Notre Dame Folk Choir, I truly believe that we have set our hearts on the right thing – giving people, weekly, the chance to be joyful about their faith.
Anne, you were right. Whether by your prayers for me or based on that momentous conversation years ago, you have kept me on the right path. And for that you have my thanks.
It is Joy that makes all the difference.