Humourless Catholics

He’d make you laugh until the doctor comes: St. Philip Neri

Life is, decidedly, never tired of surprises. I had my last yesterday, when I discovered for some Catholics it would not be in order if the Pope allows himself some witticism, or even – God forbid! – a laugh. If anyone where to tell me such a nonsense, I’d answer “you’re a convert, right?”. It is, in fact, inconceivable that a person may have such outlandish, Presbyterian rubbish in his head without it first having been put into said head by some Presbyterian, or by other equally wrong people.

There’s nothing in Catholic culture – or doctrine – against a good laugh, much less against a refined humour. Pope Pius IX brilliantly macabre joke at the expense of the Anglicans who wanted a “blessing” from him (“May you be blessed by Him in whose honour you shall be burnt”, the formula for the blessing of the incense; but he said it in Latin, so apparently they didn’t notice) is very well known, but for one joke that goes into posterity there are hundreds that don’t. A man able to make such a joke must have been an entertaining chap indeed.

Or one should think of St Philip Neri, a man of such devastating humour that occasionally the doctor had to be called because of the breathing difficulties the hysterical laughter caused in some individuals. Without recurring to the truly extreme example of St. Philip Neri, everyone who has enjoyed Don Camillo on TV or books should know a certain playful naughtiness is as much a part of a good priest’s life as anyone else’s.

If this is not enough, the levity and joy of life of Catholic countries – as opposed to the dourness and rigidity of traditional Protestantism – should be enough to let one think that this idea that jokes be inappropriate isn’t really Catholic.

Still, if at the end of the discussion my hypothetical (and formerly Protestant) counterpart were to be still not satisfied, I’d suggest to him that he reflects on the Gospel rather than – as many of them do – learning chunks of it by rote. The Gospels are short booklets written for eminently practical purposes, giving us a very condensed account of Jesus’s work. For Jesus’ joke about the “sons of thunder” to make it in such short stories, there must have been countless gentle pieces of mockery from the side of Jesus, causing hilarity all around. Today, we can’t register even the hint in the Gospel without a smile.

Truly, it seems some Protestants never got what it means that Jesus was fully human. Can they really leave all the hilarity and the playfulness of life aside, and still see Jesus as human? What kind of humanity would that be, that is against a joke, a bon mot, a playful banter, a gentle mockery? Can they really imagine Jesus at Cana, invited to a marriage together with many others, with wine and food and merriment all around, looking all the time like Gordon Brown on a bad day? How very Un-Christian…

Yours truly is, God knows, surly his part, and with a marked tendency to take everything extremely seriously. But I assure you, not even I would have ever thought that witticism doesn’t belong to Catholicism; and if this blog doesn’t make you smile it is due to my lack of talent, not my lack of will. Besides, humour is a powerful weapon, so he who has it, let him use it ad maiorem Dei gloriam; and if he is Pope, so much the better.

My suggestion to all converts from Protestant errors is that they take much attention in spotting where a deeper Protestant layer continues to subsist below the newly acquired Catholic theology. There are many of those influences, from the obsession with the second Commandment (say, that awful writing, GOD or even G-D, or thinking that pious expressions common all over Southern Europe are blasphemies…) to the one with the Scriptures, to the Gordon Brown attitude. In time, the convert will discover he has become a bit more relaxed, and a tad happier. He will, perhaps, one day, even enjoy a good joke without feeling guilty.

“How many people work in the Vatican?” Pope Blessed John XXIII was once asked.

“Oh, about half”, was the answer.

That’s the spirit.


Posted on April 19, 2013, in Catholicism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I hope then that you won’t mind this old chestnut:

    The Lord came upon a crowd about to stone a woman caught in adultery. Sorrowfully He looked at them, saying,

    “Qui sine peccato est vestrum primus in illam lapidem mittat.”

    A pebble went whizzing from the back of the crowd past his ear and struck the adulteress on the forehead.

    “Eheu, Matercula!”

    • You have a dry humour, Animadversor…

      I knew this one in Italian, so I’ll let it pass because by us these things aren’t considered disrespectful, merely reinforcing the doctrinal point…


  2. I am intrigued by your mention of ‘pious expressions’. What do you mean by this? Does this include things like Shakespeare’s constant ‘Marry’ ‘Jesu’ ‘by the Mass’ ‘by’r Lady’ and so on?

    What do you think taking the Lord’s name in vain means?

    Please be patient – am a Northern European trying to be more Italian!

    • Sean, I can’t say I master Shakespeare in this. let me try some words of explanation.

      The pious expressions are those in which a believer calls God, the Blessed Virgin or the saints as help in what he is saying, or doing. They are so rich they used to be everywhere in a country like Italy, and their use has declined not because people “don’t want to violate the second commandment” (which would never have entered their mind in the first place) but because the religious feeling itself has declined.

      “Taking the Lord’s name in vain” for us is when the name is used… in vain. This is whenever you see – and it is extremely easy to see which is which – that the name is used as an interjection or an expression of anger, even if not directed at the Lord, but not with a pious intent.

      Examples of “good” use:

      “Diobono” (“Goodlord”, one word) was a dialectal Northern Italian expression, the equivalent of “heavens!”. “Diobono, Sean, don’t eat that way”, would your father say to express you were doing something bad as a child, say, eating too fast. Not only he woul dsay to you that you were eating too fast, but he would also say to you that a Good Lord above is looking at you and mildly disapproves of that way of eating…. Again, it is strange here in the UK “Good Lord” is accepted, but you have to say “Gosh” instead… Southern Italians loved to say “Gesu'” instead, but it’s the same intent.

      Other uses where (and are) everywhere: to do things “come Dio comanda” (“as God commands”) means to do them “in the proper way”, but an Italian wouldn’t say “in the proper way”, he would say… “come Dio comanda”. I wonder what the rigid Presbyterian would have to say…

      Similarly, “Madonna Santa!” (Holy Mother of God!”), would the old lady say at knowing about the bomb in Boston. It would never enter anyone’s mind that the people using such expressions are being blasphemous or in any way disrespectful, the contrary is actually the case. She is merely calling the Blessed Virgin to her (and our) help, in a matter perfectly natural to people who pray to the Blessed Virgin every day.

      Another example of this – I might write a post one day – is that in Italian all those expressions like “good golly”, “gosh”, and the like basically created to appease the Proddies do not exist. When Italians want to say God, they say God. I think the Spaniards do the same, and I think they do it in the same way. “Mon Dieu”, the French used to say in a perfectly innocent way. Catholic country, you see…

      Examples of bad uses. They go from the swearing used from coarse people to make a point (too strong for me to repeat here) to the “Christ” thrown in by people who want to say they are angry, or want to be cool, to the “oh my god!” said by people who never think about God. Again, in real life you would immediately pick the difference, because you would immediately understand whether the expression is used and meant, or when it is used… in vain. To make an example, I grew up in the middle of old pious women saying “madonna santa” and never thought it anything else than beautiful, but there are people in this country exclaiming “Christ” in a way that is deeply offensive, and you immediately notice, on hearing them, that is nothing to do with Christ.


      As I am here, let me say two words about “damn”, “goddamn” and family…

      In Italy there’s no real difference between “goddamn” and “damn”, and both can be translated with “maledetto/a”. This expression, once absolutely everywhere, was generally used (as an adjective) in a way expressing disapprobation in a Country which had damnation constantly in mind. “Look what that damn cat did”; “Damn Commies have won a council again”. Clearly, noone was launching a malediction on Commies (they generally did that pretty well themselves) or on cats. It merely expressed the disapprobation in a way natural for people who had damnation constantly in mind, which by the way helped them to stay near the sacraments.
      Interestingly, this expression never existed alone. Italian don’t say “damn” (italian: “maledizione”) when they discover they locked themselves out, or have hammered their own finger; the expression is only found in the translations of American movies.

      The expression “maledetto” (as an adjective) was, again, everywhere. It certainly was in movies fir for a children audience (John Wayne, say), and I am pretty sure you’ll find it in Don Camillo movies (Italian version) too. The fact is, they are so normal I don’t even notice them.

      It was only when I moved to England that I discovered this country had people raising eyebrows as long as you say “damn …..”… Heavens, when I was a child it was in movies for children, in parish cinemas, and no one ever had a problem!

      I hope this helps. Again, one must see to believe. I can easily pick whether one is being disrespectful or not when he says “God”, in whatever language he may do it. But in a country where there are people who even have a problem with writing the word God, I expect it would get more complicated.. 😉


  3. The origin of the idea is not exactly Protestant, but notions of avoiding laughter come from St. Paul and the Rule of St. Benedict, both forbidding laughter, most likely to relate to discipline.

    God Bless.

    • I do not mean to say the Protestant have invented the notion. Anyway, Benedict wrote his rule for his own monks. I hope everyday discipline was not so rigid, though…


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