Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
During his highly popular television series, Archbishop Fulton Sheen devoted one show to the “Divine Sense of Humor.” He himself often began his talks, or punctuated his serious topic, with a humorous story that emphasized the point. They elicited anything from a chuckle to a hearty laugh.
More than once when he told people he did not use notes of any kind, including a teleprompter on TV, he said, “I always loved that old Irish woman who when she saw a bishop reading a speech said, ‘Glory be to God! If he can't remember it, how did he expect us to?’”
Chuckling followed when he would say something about his angel erasing his television blackboard. Or tell his audience, the angel was “also taking down notes but they will not do you any good because he takes them down in invisible ink.”
Another time he said he wouldn’t be like the professor who traveled around the country in a chauffeur-driven car to give the same lecture everywhere. “One day the chauffeur said to him, ‘I think I've heard that lecture of yours a thousand times, and I could give it just as well as you do.”
‘All right,’ said the professor. ‘You stand up on the platform tonight, give the lecture. I will sit out in the audience in your chauffeur’s uniform.’ The chauffeur gave a perfect lecture but at the end someone said, ‘There's a question I would like to ask you. When you mix that H2SO4 without any CO2 and compared with the photographic plates of the sun, how do you get the equation that equals M-over-C squared?’
He said, “That's the most stupid question I ever heard in all my life, and to show you how stupid it is, I'm going to ask my chauffeur to answer.’”
Giving a lecture in upstate New York, he said he went into the town’s barber shop for a haircut. “The barber did not recognize me. And he said, ‘Are you going to that lecture tonight by Archbishop Sheen?’ I said, ‘Yes.’
He said, ‘Do you have a ticket?’ I said, ‘No I don’t.’
He said, ‘Well, all the tickets have been sold, so you probably will have to stand.’
I said, ‘You know, it’s a peculiar thing that every time I go to hear that man talk I always have to stand.’”
Meals played a part in his humor too. One time he told this story: “Not very long ago I went into the Grand Central Station in New York for breakfast. And I said to the waitress, ‘Would you kindly give me a cup of coffee, toast, a boiled egg, and a few kind words.’ She brought me the coffee, and the toast.
‘And don’t you have a few kind words?’
She said, ‘Don’t – eat – the – egg.’”
Different Kind of Humor
But the humor Archbishop Sheen concentrated for on this show was the “Divine Sense of Humor.”
“Humor is not just the comic,” he told the audience. “Humor means for us the ability to see through things. We generally say a person has a sense of humor if he can see through things. A person lacks a sense of humor, he cannot see through things... A person who has a sense of humor sees the world as something like a window. It's transparent. It looks out into another world. The words he hears, the things he sees tell him about something else.”
Then he gave several examples. “You hear a sound. There's a joke. A horse may hear it. A horse will not give a horse laugh because he does not get the meaning of the word, which again is invisible.”
Seeing things differently doesn’t always elicit a laugh, yet it is a humor of sorts in a unique way, he explained, such as a poet has. Francis Thompson “looks out on the universe and does not see the things that ordinary people see a mountain is not a mountain. A mountain is a revelation of the power of God.” Sheen recited a line from his poetry dramatically: To him the sun “was a host. and the day a priest. And each morn the priest goes to the Orient Tabernacle, lifts from out it the Host, raises it in benediction over the world, and at night sets it in the flaming monstrance of the West.”
Joyce Kilmer saw trees had “leafy arms outstretched all in prayer. He ended his poem, ‘Poems are made by fools…like me. but only God can make a tree.’”
Lightening the Load
Archbishop Sheen knew how to lighten the mood for people during his talks too, in order to absorb the idea and make the transition from one serious thought to another. In a different talk he explained, “The great orator Cicero said whenever you're giving a serious discourse, every now and then introduce something light. Let it distract but never completely disturb the gravity of the discourse.”
At this point Sheen told another story.
“That reminds me. I was once visiting a very rich man. He had three swimming pools. One for those who knew how to swim. The second for those who knew how to swim but did not like to swim. And the third was empty. It was for those who could not swim.”
Naturally there were laughs, then he continued. The same man “had a big oak tree planted alongside of one of his swimming pools, and he said, ‘I transported that oak tree from a hundred miles away and brought it here in order that I might have shade in the afternoon when I read alongside of my swimming pool. What do you think of that?’ And I said, “Well that just goes to show what God could do if he only had money.’”
He continued, “The humorous have this peculiar instinct, too, of the unseen. They pierce our foibles, relieve tensions; they take away the seriousness of life even in serious moments.”
Here is where he switched gears and brought in the divine aspect.
“Now that we've explained a peculiar definition of humor,” he said, “we will qualify it with the adjective ‘Divine’. When our Blessed Lord came to this earth he had the divine sense of humor. There was nothing in this world that he ever took seriously except … the salvation of the soul. That is why he said, What does it profit man to gain the universe, lose a soul?”
Sheen lined up several examples pointing out things like sheep and goats and talents were things that told Our Lord “about something else — maybe about Father's love.”
“Our Blessed Lord never took a camel very seriously,” Sheen said. “It was to him a description of how difficult it is for rich people to maintain a really fine spiritual character. That it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle — than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And the lily? “He looked at the lily of the field and then his mind went back to the great pageantry and pomp and splendor of Solomon's Palace. He said, Solomon and all his glory was not arrayed as one of these. The humor that he got out of it was that the Father cares for the lily, the grass of the field which today is, and tomorrow is not. How much more you, oh ye of little faith?”
Then Jesus explained to Nicodemus who knew about ahnd took very seriously the brass serpent in the time his people were led out of slavery in Egypt and bitten by poisonous serpents. “God said to Moses, Make a serpent of brass, hang it up on a tree, and everybody who looks upon that serpent of brass will be healed of the poison and the bite… Those who looked on it were healed. Now there was nothing in a serpent of brass to heal anyone. Simply because they were obedient to God they were healed. Our Blessed Lord never took that serpent seriously. Not that it was not an historical fact. That was not the point. But rather he explained to Nicodemus that he had to be lifted up just as the serpent was. What did he mean? He meant that that serpent of brass looked like the serpent that stung the people. But that brass serpent had no poison in him, and all who looked upon him were healed.
“So he said, I will be lifted up on a tree too — and when I am lifted up on a tree I would look as if I were guilty, and I were full of sin, and I were a criminal. but there'll be no more sin in me than there was poison in that serpent of Brass. All who look upon me…will be healed.
“That was the divine sense of humor in an eminent degree.”
Sheen contrasted this with the other kind of humor. “Everybody takes Jonah very seriously… I might tell you that one day I was talking on this subject and somebody interrupted me and said, ‘Tell me. How could Jonah be in the belly of the whale for three days?’
I said, “I don't know. When I go to heaven, I'll ask Jonah.”
He said, ‘Suppose Jonah isn't there?’
“Then I said, ‘You ask him.’”
Sheen connected this off-the-cuff humorous incident with Our Lord telling those asking for a sign that As Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days, so shall the Son of Man be in the earth and then will rise again.
When he drove the moneychangers from the temple and was asked for a sign that he had this authority, Our Lord “gave them one,” Sheen emphasized. “He said, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.” The could only say it took 46 years to build it. “But he was talking with a divine sense of humor.”
Sheen enlightened that the temple is “a place where God was dwelling. Divinity in his human Nature. Therefore, he was the temple.”
There was a play on words, as humor often does, so to speak. The great evangelist-catechist wrote on the blackboard two Greek words the gospel uses for ‘temple.’ Hieron meaning “the general view of the temple, it's ensemble, its totality.” And Naos, meaning Holy of Holies. we translate that in English — both words — as ‘temple.’ But what he was actually saying was: Destroy this Holy of Holies — for I am the Holy of Holies — destroy it, and on the third day I will rise again.” The Divine sense of humor.
All throughout, with his great, truthful dramatic sense, Sheen concluded that Our Lord showed omnipotence, miracles, wisdom, knowing men’s minds and thoughts, compassion feeding the hungry multitudes, his patience under suffering.
“But there was one thing that he does not show… one thing he saved for those who have a divine sense of humor. It was one thing he saved for heaven that will make heaven, heaven. And that was... his smile.”