Question: Why does the Catholic Faith and its devotions seem so somber when compared to other Christian Churches? Shouldn’t there be more to religion than developing sorrow for sin? I’ve been praying the Franciscan Seven Sorrows Crown and it is somewhat depressing. [The question was posed during Lent.]
Answer: Some of the problem may be that much of what passes for Christianity today is more “feel good about yourself” psychology and entertainment than religion. Even modern Catholics like most Protestants have all but given up the penitential observance of Lent. Traditional Catholicism is much more concerned with man’s relationship to God than with his own ego, so, relatively speaking, authentic Catholicism will always seem more somber than the sects of Christianity. Frankly, some of the behavior seen in the modern churches seems awfully contrived – it is hard to believe that all of those folks bubbling with joy are really all that thrilled to shake each others’ hand, or to wave their hands around in the air when they are “filled with the Spirit.”
Compunction is an important part of our relationship with God. We are, after all, the descendents of Adam and Eve, and we share their fall from grace. The reality of it is that we do sin, and unless we have some motive for contrition, confession, and absolution, most of us would rarely be in the state of Grace. The best motive we can have is sorrow for the sufferings and indignities our sins offer to Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became man precisely to deliver us from sin.
For this reason, and to help us consciously recognize our dependence of God, the Church prescribes various kinds of penitential prayer throughout the year: Advent and Lent, Vigils, Fridays and Ember days, as well as a number of private penitential devotions like the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Franciscan Crown of Seven Sorrows, and the Stations of the Cross – not to mention the penitential reading we may find in Catholic prayer books and other works of devotion.
But Catholic observance and prayer is always balanced – at least when it is not distorted by some overly morose or overly jocular preacher or writer. Advent and Lent are somber to be sure, but they give way to even longer seasons of spiritual joy in Christmas and Eastertide; Vigils, by definition, give way to Feasts; Fridays and Ember days are always followed by Sundays. For every Sorrowful Mystery there is a corresponding Joyful and Glorious Mystery; the Franciscan Crown of Mary’s Sorrows has its corresponding Crown of Seven Joys; musical historians are fairly sure that the same Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306) who composed the Stabat Mater dolorosa, which we sing at the Stations of the Cross, composed the complimentary joyful Christmas hymn Stabat Mater speciosa.
The joy of Christmas and Easter and the other festal days in honor of our Lord and His saints are not back-slapping, hand-waving occasions. True Christian joy will hardly ever be that. Yet, we ought to feel, and ought to allow ourselves to feel good about the Good News of Jesus Christ. We might compare religious joy to those joyous occasion of the natural life when we feel good about the outcome of things that are close to us – for example, the graduation of a son or daughter from school, the wedding of a good friend to the “right” person, or the feeling of a job well done.
We ought to recognize that as human beings we have our own emotional issues, which are often independent of the liturgical year. Most lives are filled with a mixture of joy and sadness. We ought not feel that something is wrong with our religious life if the events of our natural life sometimes create in us a mood inappropriate to the Church’s seasons. Trying to affect joy or sadness that we don’t really feel would be hypocritical.