I'm no expert on papal history, but there's one thing I can tell you for sure: no Pope has ever used the word "sourpuss" in an official document.
Until now. In his letter The Joy of the Gospel, the Holy Father writes about the temptation of becoming “sourpusses.”
I was so startled by the word that I checked other translations of the letter. The French and Italian versions just use expressions for dark or gloomy expressions. But in Spanish, which I assume is the language the Pope used, it says cara de vinagre--vinegar face! For which “sourpuss” seems a perfect translation.
Pope Francis is warning against defeatism, “which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists.” Quoting St. John XXIII, he tells us to ignore “the prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster.”
We need this papal advice about positive thinking more than ever. As Pope Francis writes in The Joy of the Gospel, “Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory
beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half
the battle and we bury our talents.”
But how do we maintain a positive attitude in the face of the setbacks the Church has faced in Canada and many other places? How do we deal with our own failures without becoming pessimists?
The one word answer is in the title of the Pope's letter, and in our first reading, Psalm and Gospel at Mass this morning: joy.
In today's first reading, the prophet Isaiah is preaching to a discouraged community. After fifty years, the Jews have returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. But when they return to the holy city they've been longing for, it's in ruin. The people are downcast and discouraged.
In the face of their distress, Isaiah tells them to rejoice, not to mourn. He calls them to joy--not because things are all peachy, but because God is still in charge. Raise your eyes above Jerusalem's ruined buildings and streets overgrown with weeds and look to the future. Don't look at Jerusalem as she is, but as she will become by God's providence.
For Christians, the prophet's message goes further. Look to the Jerusalem to come, as St. Paul tells the Galatians in a passage that precedes the one we've just heard. The present Jerusalem, he says, is in slavery. But the Jerusalem above is free, “and she is our mother.” (Gal. 4:25-26) As Paul writes to the Colossians, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is.”
We can find much joy in longing for heaven, in thinking and praying about the plan God has for our lives both now and forever. In the second reading today, we meet St. Paul at his most peaceful. He seems secure and settled, without fear of failure or persecution. And though he doesn't mention joy here as he does in many other places in his epistles, Paul lets us in on his secret: “a new creation is everything!”
A new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God--all phrases that need a homily on their own. But the bottom line of Paul's exclamation is that being a Christian has made all the difference to his life.
That difference has brought him great joy, and it should do the same for us. A Christian who finds no joy in life has lost his or her relationship with God or at least lost sight of what the Psalm today calls his tremendous deeds.
Things as basic as the beauty of creation should make us joyful, So too should our gratitude for the many blessings of our lives. On my ordination anniversary last week, I thanked God for the top three: faith, family, and friends. They're all easy to take for granted sometimes, but I think that faith is the one most often forgotten when we look at the sources of our joy.
The disciples come back from their first mission full of spiritual joy. Their success in preaching and casting out evil spirits dwarfed whatever hardships they'd met on their journey. We also need spiritual joy--we need to marvel every week at being called to be members of the Church. Every Mass should have a note of joy, and we should not only be grateful but joyful for the security and healing God offers us in the other sacraments.
Our parishioners who pray Morning Prayer before Mass begin with Psalm 95 every day. That psalm invites us to “ring out our joy to the Lord.” That's certainly what the readings ask us to do today, but lifting up our eyes from earthly worries and focusing on heavenly hope.
I gave Pope Francis the first word in my homily--“sourpusses”--so I'd like to give him the last word. Here's how his letter begins: “The joy of the gospel fills the
hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer
of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and
loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”