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Friday, December 9, 2011

Catholic Priest Says Faith Can Be Funny

So, a Jesuit priest walks into… a late night TV show. (We’re not kidding, actually.)

Father James Martin is a Jesuit priest and theologian, and he’s also the “official chaplain to Colbert Nation,” coming on The Colbert Report to chat with comedian Stephen Colbert about such topics as Mother Theresa’s “crisis of faith.”

In his most recent book “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,” Father Martin posits that humor is an essential part of faith, that Jesus laughed and made jokes, as did many of the saints.

“St. Thomas Moore in the 16th Century as he climbed the steps on the way to the chopping block, he said to his executioner, ‘I pray you help me on the way up, as for coming down, I will take care of myself,’” Father Martin told Here & Now’s Robin Young.

He also says that humor helps people remember their humility and their humanity, and that people can laugh in prayer and share their joy with God the way they would with a friend, or any other important relationship in their lives.

Post Your Religious Jokes: You can post them in the comments section, on our Facebook page, on our shoutout page or email letters@hereandnow.org.

Book Excerpt: “Between Heaven and Mirth”

By James Martin, S.J.

Mike is one of the funniest people I know. A Catholic priest in his mid-sixties, he regales his friends with clever stories, boasts superb comic timing, and has perfected an inimitable deadpan look. Today Mike is a popular professor at Fordham, a Catholic university in New York City, where his lighthearted sermons attract crowds of students to Sunday Masses. It’s nearly impossible to be downhearted or discouraged in his presence.

But Mike’s contagious humor wasn’t always valued. And forty years ago the Jesuits—the Catholic religious order to which Mike and I belong—had an odd custom that made this clear. At the time, the young Jesuits in training were required to publicly confess their “faults” to the men in their community as a way of fostering their humility. This had been a long-standing practice in many religious orders, especially in monastic orders. (It sounds strange but, as the saying goes, the past is a different country. And the past in religious orders is a different world.)

So, for example, at a weekly gathering of the priests and brothers, a young Jesuit might confess that he hadn’t said his evening prayers. Or that he had nodded off during a particularly dull homily. Or that he had said uncharitable things about another person in the community. This was supposed to help the young Jesuit become more humble, more attentive to his shortcomings, and more eager to correct them. On top of that, each young Jesuit was supposed to confess things privately, to the head of the community.

One day Mike, who was known for his high spirits, felt guilty. Earlier in the day, during Mass, he couldn’t stop laughing about something that struck him as hilarious. He felt he had been acting silly and undignified. So Mike walked into the office of the head of the Jesuit community, an elderly priest with a well-earned reputation for seriousness.

Mike took his seat and prepared for his admission of guilt.

“Father,” he said, “I confess excessive levity.”

The priest glowered at Mike, paused, and said, “All levity is excessive!”

In some religious circles joy, humor, and laughter are viewed the same way the crabby priest saw levity: as excessive. Excessive, irrelevant, ridiculous, inappropriate, and even scandalous. But a lighthearted spirit is none of those things. Rather, it is an essential element of a healthy spiritual life and a healthy life in general. When we lose sight of this serious truth, we cease to live life fully, truly, and wholly. Indeed, we fail to be holy. And that’s what my book Between Heaven and Mirth is about: the value of joy, humor, and laughter in the spiritual life.

The book had its genesis a few years ago when I began to give talks based on a book called My Life with the Saints, a memoir telling the story of twenty saints who had been influential in my spiritual life. In a short while I noticed something surprising. Wherever I spoke—whether in parishes, colleges, conferences, or retreat centers—what people wanted to hear about most was the way the saints were joyful people, enjoyed lives full of laughter, and how their holiness led inevitably to joy. To a degree that astonished me, people seemed fascinated by joy. It was almost as if they’d been waiting to be told that it’s okay to be religious and enjoy themselves, to be joyful believers.

Still, many professional religious people (priests, ministers, rabbis, and the like) as well as some devout believers in general give the impression that being religious means being dour, serious, or even grumpy—like Mike’s superior. But the lives of the saints, as well as those of great spiritual masters from almost every other religious tradition, show the opposite. Holy people are joyful. Why? Because holiness brings us closer to God, the source of all joy.

Why am I so concerned with joy, humor, and laughter from a spiritual point of view? Why have I written an entire book on the subject? The reaction of those crowds is not the only thing that encouraged me to take up this topic. There was another phenomenon, equally persuasive, that I continually ran across: these virtues—yes, virtues—are often sadly lacking in religious institutions and in the ideas that good religious people have about religion.

A little background may be in order. I’ve been a Catholic and a Christian my whole life, a Jesuit for over twenty years, and a priest for over ten. So I’ve spent a great deal of time living and working among those whom you could call “professionally religious.” I’ve met men and women working in all manner of religious settings. And I have known, met, or spoken to thousands of religious people from almost every walk of life. In the process I have come across a surprising number of spiritually aware people who are, in a word, grim.

Being joy-challenged is not just the province of Jesuit priests and brothers (most of whom are cheerful sorts). Joylessness is nondenominational and interfaith. “My minister is such a grump!” a Lutheran friend told me a few months ago, explaining what led her to search for another church. Last year I gave a talk to a large group of Catholics. After the talk someone said approvingly, “You know, I actually saw our bishop laugh during your talk. I’ve never seen that before.” She had been working with the bishop for five years.

A certain element of such joylessness is probably related to personality types; some of us are naturally more cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat. But after encountering the same brand of dejection over and over for twenty years in a wide variety of settings, I’ve reached the unscientific (but I think accurate) conclusion that underlying this gloom is a lack of belief in this essential truth: faith leads to joy.

Adapted from BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH by James Martin, S.J. Copyright © 2011 by James Martin, S.J. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.


  • Reverend James Martin, SJ (Society of Jesus), a Jesuit priest and theologian, he’s the culture editor of “America Magazine” and the author of several books and official chaplain to Colbert Nation

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  • Anonymous

    I don’t know if this joke applies, but here’s mine:

    A bear was chasing a camper in the forest.  The camper prayed to God that the bear would not eat him.  Yet, the footsteps of the bear kept getting louder behind him.  And when he could hear the bear’s breath, he prayed one final time, “God, if I am to die, at least let the bear be Christian!”Suddenly the camper could not hear the bear behind him.  Curious, he turned around.  To his amazement he saw the bear sitting.  The bear looked up and clasped his paws in prayer, and said, “Dear God, thank you for the meal I’m about to receive.”

  • Anonymous

    A funny quote by St. Augustine before he could control his sexual drive:

    “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”  – St. Augustine

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    The verse about the camel passing through the eye of the needle may just be a bad translation: the written word for “camel” is apparently barely different that the written word for “rope”.  That would make more sense, and not be surreal — and not funny, either.


  • Di

    Irish priest is driving down to New York and gets stopped for speeding
    in Connecticut. The state
    trooper smells alcohol on the priest’s breath and then sees an empty
    wine bottle
    on the floor of the car. He says, “Sir, have you been drinking?””Just

    water,” says the priest. The trooper says, “Then why do I smell wine?”The

    priest looks at the bottle and says, “Good Lord! He’s done it


    Was Jesus?

    are three good arguments that Jesus was

    1.  He
    used olive oil

    2.  He
    liked feasts

    3.  He
    made homemade wine.


    are three good arguments that Jesus was

    1.  He
    never married.

    2.  He
    liked green pastures.

    3.  He
    told a lot of stories.


    are three good arguments that Jesus was

    1.  He
    was into soul.

    2.  He
    called everyone “brother.”

    3.  He
    couldn’t get a fair trial.


    actually, the strongest argument is that Jesus was a

    1.  He
    fed a crowd on a moment’s notice with almost
    no food.

    2.  He
    kept having to explain things to a bunch of
    men who didn’t get it.

    Even after he was DEAD he had to get up and go
    back to work!


    was teaching one day when a group of priests brought to him a woman
    caught in
    adultery.  They asked him if she should be stoned to death.  “Let the
    one without sin cast the first stone,” he said.


    the back of the crowd sailed a rock that hit the woman right between the
    and she fell down dead at Jesus’ feet. 

    he said,


    again, Mom!”


    Roman soldiers had just nailed Jesus to the cross and left him to die. 

    he called. 

    Lord,” Peter said, and tried to get to the foot of the cross.  He was
    dragged back by the crowd.

    Jesus called again.

    coming, Lord,” Peter said again, and he struggled to reach the cross. 
    fought the crowd but was beaten up by the soldiers.

    my friend,” Jesus called one last time.

    my Lord,” Peter said, and bravely fought the crowd and the soldiers and
    made it
    to the foot of the cross at last.

    my Lord?” Peter said.

    can see your house from here.”


    A young priest’s bicycle is
    missing and he fears one of the congregation has taken it.
    to worry”, says the pastor. “This Sunday, preach about the Ten
    coming down especially hard on the eighth, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ If
    the person
    who took your bike is there, he or she will feel guilty and return

    go accordingly. The priest enumerates the commandments one by one. But
    he glides
    past the eighth as casually as the rest.

    boy, you missed your chance,” said the pastor. “You put no special
    emphasis on
    the sin of stealing.”

    OK. When I got to the seventh commandment, I remembered where I’d left

    • Anonymous

      Liked the “why Jesus was probably a woman” one! But either way, Jesus was first and foremost Jewish!

      • better make this anonymous

        “One summer a Jewish man moved into a Catholic neighborhood. Every Friday he would drive the Catholics crazy because, while they were eating fish, he would be outside grilling steaks. The Catholics asked him to stop; in fact, they tried to convert him. Finally, by threats and pleading, the Catholics succeeded. They took their neighbor to a priest, who sprinkled holy water on him and intoned: ‘Born a Jew, raised a Jew, now a Catholic.’ The Catholics were ecstatic — no more steak aroma filling the air every Friday evening. But the next Friday evening the scent of barbecue once again filled the air. The Catholics rushed over to the convert’s house in order to remind him of his new Catholic ‘diet.’ When they arrived, they saw him standing over the grill. He was sprinkling water on the meat and they heard him say, ‘Born a cow, raised a cow, now a fish!’”

        [From "A Minister, a Priest, and a Rabbi"] 

  • Anonymous

    The joke on everyone (for at least 4000 years), is that only “the concept of a god” is real! Best joke ever!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Sergeant/100000365457932 Mike Sergeant

      There’s always one guy that has to get some agenda comment in there.  Please stick with the humor, we can discuss the merits of religion on another page.

      • Anonymous

        Thought I was – read those above.


      Suzy what are you doing?  I’m drawing a picture of God—-  Suzy! nobody knows what God looks like——  They will when I’m finished with this picture.

    • better make this anonymous

      From an anonymous wit lampooning Christian theology of the 1970′s:

      “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ And they answered him: You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, in whom we find the ultimate fulfillment in our interpersonal relationships.’ And Jesus said: ‘What?’”

  • Anonymous

    (Some time in the 16th century …)  “I just made a joke about Jesus the other day and now I’m burning at the stake – what’s up with that?!”  – Bada Boom!!!

    “And don’t even get me started about Mohammad – that one cost me an arm and a leg!!!”

  • Roberta

    was driving today ( Friday 12/9)  while Father James Martin was on “Here and Now: with, I think, Terri Gross?  He was telling a joke about  priest/minister and rabbi. I didn’t get the gist of the joke/story- only heard the punch line ( the rabbi cut off 1/2 inch)
    did anyone hear the whole story and was that Terri Gross?

    • http://www.hereandnow.org Kevin Sullivan

      actually, that was Robin Young, and the joke was:
      A man buys a car and calls a priest, a minister and a rabbi to bless it..
      The priest sprinkles holy water,  the minister had everyone hold hands and sing. The rabbi cut a half-inch off the tailpipe.
      Kevin, H&N producer

      • mary ann straughn

        I’m glad to see that you are paying attention.
        mary ann

  • Kristina

    There is absolutely NOTHING funny about the Bible. Choosing soft and fuzzy verses while not pointing out the most hateful, ugly verses that dominate the Bible is a HUGE sin of omission. There was nothing nothing funny about the millions of people burned alive at the stake and tortured in unbeliveably cruel ways. How funny is this verse?  “Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth the little ones against the stones.” (Psalms 137:9) Or how about 2 Chron. 15:13: “Whosoever would not seek the lord God of Israel shall be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.” Oh How Funny is that????

    • Anonymous

      What are you talking about???? …. Those were HILARIOUS TIMES (didn’t you ever watch Monty Python?) !!

  • Nic

    Wow. I was just thinking about how funny it is that God is a peeping Tom and must get a laugh from watching Catholic Priests molest boys.

    • Anonymous

      God’s busy with another planet right now – will get back to us later!

  • ronlee

    1) There is no evidence for a god
    2) The Bible is a horrible book written by misogynistic, racist, primitive men
    3) Christianity is all borrowed mythology, superstition, and magical thinking
    4) The only evidence for Jesus is hearsay
    Sure, you can cherry pick the Bible for humor, but it should but judged for what it is- a terrible book with little to no value for modern life.  It should be considered a big joke at face value.
    The “good news” of Jesus is horrible human sacrifice mythology.  The god of the monotheistic religions is a horrible creature- arguably one of the most horrible creations of the human mind.
    Pathetic- really pathetic – you want humor, watch Seinfeld, Modern Family, etc.  Christianity and the Bible are not funny. 

    • Anonymous

      Everything can be made funny if you try hard enough!

      • football23

        I understand what you are trying to say. 

        How about these of “Biblical” proportion -
        The Holocaust
        The Inquisition
        Cancer Deaths
        HIV Deaths

        • Anonymous

          It’s been done.

  • paul

    Fr. Martin quotes Ecclesiastes about there being a time and place for everything, including a time to laugh. Fine. But he doesn’t say why NOW is the time for the Church to laugh.

    Maybe, just maybe, it is time for the Church to mourn?  I can understand the possible desire to “turn the page;” I am just not sure that that is what is needed or called for right now.

    (Sure, the Church could use some good p. r., but maybe mourning will get the job done better than laughing.)

  • Anonymous

    I liked Father Martin’s jokes but the old Jesuit was right, any levity is excessive. Much of humor is put down, caricature, mimicry, parody, satire, ridicule; it’s the class clown making fun of the teacher, the deflation of pompous know-it-alls, the reduction to absurdity. In short, blasphemy. Here’s my joke:

    Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are in a boat being rowed to an island by an old sailor. They are in a deep theological discussion. Suddenly the wind rises and the waves threaten to capsize the boat. Desperate, the old sailor falls to his knees and begins to pray. Moses stands up and says, “Fear not for the Lord shall part the seas”. Moses steps out of the boat and sinks to the bottom. Then Jesus stands up and says, “Fear not for I shall still the waters.” Jesus steps out of the boat and sinks to the bottom. Then Mohammed stands up and says, “Fear not for Allah shall fly us to heaven.” Mohammed leaps from the boat and sinks to the bottom. Then the old sailor stands up, removes his wristwatch, tosses it into the water and says, “Oh great Poseidon, take my humble gift and spare my life. It is all I possess and it’s waterproof.” After a moment the winds calm and the seas become placid. Next Moses, Jesus and Mohammed pop up. They’re coughing, hacking and spitting water. And then a deep voice rises from the depths, “I’ll keep the watch.”

  • better make this anonymous

    Isaac Asimov, an atheist I believe, related this joke in his book of laughs:

    To test him, the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery (the proscribed punishment for adultery being stoning to death). Jesus famously draws in the sand and says, “Whoever among you is without sin, cast the first stone.” Suddenly a rock sails past Jesus, beaning the woman in the head. Jesus, stunned, looks out into the crowd to see who the culprit might be. “Oh, mother,” he sighs.

    (Bada bing.)

  • Blessedstray

    Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry all heard God say, “I want you to
    run. If you run, you will win.” Now we know that God was actually
    speaking to Tim Tebow.

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