As Blessed Mother Teresa put it, “Joy is prayer. Joy is strength. Joy is love. Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”
But do Christians experience as much joy as they could or should? After all, it is one of the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it’s listed in the No. 2 place, right after charity.
Catholic Christians should have a sense of joy, but that can be difficult in modern society. In his 1975 apostolic exhortation Gaudete in Domino (On Christian Joy), Pope Paul VI offers this explanation: “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. For joy comes from another source. It is spiritual. Money, comfort, hygiene and material security are often not lacking; and yet boredom, depression and sadness unhappily remain the lot of many.”
Paul VI first details some natural joys, like the joy people experience when in harmony with nature “and especially in relationships, sharing and communion with other people.” Then he points out the next level: “All the more does he know spiritual joy or happiness when his spirit enters into God’s possession.”
Father Stanley Smolenski, a Baptistine hermit and co-founder and director of Our Lady of Joyful Hope Shrine in Kingstree, S.C., helps differentiate between joy, happiness and pleasure.
A person can physically have pleasure but mentally not have happiness. Dieters going on eating binges have pleasure but not happiness; mentally they know it’s not good for them. On the other hand, suffering pain after surgery isn’t pleasurable, but patients can be happy when the doctor says everything went well and they should recover soon.
“The world offers pleasure because it’s focused on the material, the physical,” Father Smolenski emphasizes. “The world overloads us with physical, material things — so people reject the spiritual; but the world can’t give us true, lasting joy because pleasure has physical limitations. That’s why everyone is going in circles.”
Paul VI counsels the need for “a patient effort to teach people … how to savor in a simple way the many human joys that the Creator places in our path.” Among joys he lists are “chaste and sanctified love … silence … purity, service and sharing … sacrifice.”
He notes: “Christian joy presupposes a person capable of natural joy” and also draws attention to Jesus: “In his humanity he … has manifestly known, appreciated and celebrated a whole range of human joys, those simple daily joys within the reach of everyone.” Paul gives examples from the Bible: the Good Shepherd who finds his sheep, the joy of the wedding celebration at Cana, and the father welcoming back the prodigal son.
But there’s more, Paul VI emphasizes. The Holy Spirit “who dwells fully in the person of Jesus … is this same Spirit who still today gives to so many Christians the joy of living day by day their particular vocation.”
“If a family wants to have joy, it has to have spiritual values,” Father Smolenski says. “That’s where joy comes from. (Spiritual values) are certain and based on God’s laws and the life, death and resurrection of Christ. That’s why we have joyful hope. To have joy, the family has to have those values.”
For example, when a family says the Rosary together, they are also united with Christ and Mary in the mysteries. “So joy in the Holy Spirit is not just ‘knowing,’ but ‘union with,’” he explains. “The Holy Spirit not only gives knowledge, but unites by love.”
That also happens when families or a group go on pilgrimage. “Each individual has that joy and all share the joy together.”
Laura Sirilla and her husband Mike, a theology professor at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, live this joy with their five children, who range in age from 11 months to 10.
When they learned that Laura’s sister is suffering from cancer, they started praying a family Rosary every night. Soon the joyful result showed up, says Laura: “Even some of the younger kids are saying, ‘We’re glad we’re praying the Rosary at night,’ lifting our intentions to God together and spending our time together.”
Rebecca Sanford, whose husband Jonathan heads the same university’s philosophy department, also sees joy in their Christian vocation as a family. They have six children, 2 1/2 to 14, with a baby on the way. The family prays a decade of the Rosary together every night; they enjoy praying the whole Rosary when driving in the car together.
“Sometimes the kids might not be super eager to stop and have prayer time,” Rebecca says. “But then there is a joy when our family prays the Rosary together in the evening — a joy and contentment knowing they’re doing what God wants them to be doing.”
Just being together brings joy, too.
Sanford notices her family “experiencing joy when we’re doing things together,” she says, whether that’s playing in the yard — or even doing the dishes.
“The children loathe doing dishes, but there’s a joy in the family when they’re working in a group effort and it benefits the family,” she finds. “Even though they don’t get ‘happiness’ doing dishes, they get such a true joy and satisfaction when working together.”
There’s the unexpected joy of the moment, too, Sirilla finds. Once while doing dishes, she turned to see her youngest child climbing into a cabinet. She describes it as “a profound moment of joy seeing this magnificent little human that so lifted my spirits.”
It’s a “nice consolation in family life when practicing our faith — just enjoying another person or seeing the wonderfulness of God working through things,” she says. “In these moments in family life there’s a profound joy. It’s a deeper happiness than I ever had as a 20-year-old college student.”
She sees this joy coming from God and being a taste of heaven.
Father Smolenski describes how “that joy lasts because the Kingdom is eternal.”
Didn’t Our Lord tell the apostles (John 15:11) what also applies to us? “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”
In Gaudete in Domino, Paul VI brought out the necessity “to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which abides in Jesus and which is special to him. … It is because of the inexpressible love by which he knows that he is loved by his Father.”
It’s a reflection of what Sanford notices all the time with her children. She sees their deep sense of contentment and joy in their relationship with their father.
“My husband is a very involved father: affirming, present, affectionate,” she says. “They love to be in his presence and have a deep contentment around him. When with him, they have true joy.”
By living Christian joy, parents reflect an image of God the Father: “In how we experience the joy and satisfaction of being children of God,” she says, “it’s one of the primary ways we experience being a child of God and being in the family of God.”
“The joy of being Christian,” she concludes, “comes from knowing you are loved and belong to the family of God.”
That’s reason enough to want to jump for joy to pick this fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.