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The Problem With the “Happy Catholic” Narrative

“There was a time when I said: ‘Next year I will finally have it together,’ or ‘When I grow more mature these moments of inner darkness will go,’ or ‘Age will diminish my emotional needs.’ But now I know that my sorrows are mine and will not leave me. In fact I know they are very old and very deep sorrows and that no amount of positive thinking or optimism will make them less.”

– Henri Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? ( p. 37)

After our second daughter, Sarah, was born with a rare disease, I began feeling discomfort and anger when I would hear common phrases that made perfect sense in the past: “Everything happens for a reason” or “Remember to look at the positive” or “God is in control, just trust Him.” These clichés didn’t work for me anymore. In fact, they drove me further into a pit of loneliness.

Over time, I’ve come to understand the undercurrent of perpetual optimism at the heart of Christianity incarnate. All too often, non-Catholics and Catholics alike toss worn and weary platitudes they have heard or received, because they believe (falsely) that any time a Christian feels crushed by the weight of his/her cross, it is indicative that the Faith will be viewed in a negative light by others.

One such conversation happened to me in the early months following Sarah’s birth. A friend warned me, “Remember, no one will want to be a Christian if all they see is our sorrow and not our joy.” The reality is that Christianity is full of paradoxes. Rather than being downcast or uplifted, we can be both at the same time. The human experience is most fully lived when a person incorporates all of the highs and lows that happen along the way.

What is the “Happy Catholic Narrative”

In recent years, both mainstream and Christian media pump out the happiness message in books, shows, podcasts, and memes. While we are bombarded with the idea that “life will get better, just keep your chin up,” many of us have discovered that we fall flat in our spiritual development by trying to live by these half-truths served on a platter of encouragement.

Editor David Mills calls this “the happy Catholic narrative.” Based loosely on prosperity theology, he explains it as “the mainstream of popular Catholic writing, which was either polemical and culture-warring or happy-happy, presenting Catholic life (teaching and practice) as if it always worked out perfectly. The happy Catholic narrative was normative. People might make a verbal gesture to the limits and problems but it was only a verbal gesture.”

As a result, Mills noticed a lot of faithful Catholics hide their pain, because their experience didn’t fit in with the happiness culture or sunny spirituality offered to them with little else, including authentic accompaniment, in that suffering.

Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, Can You Drink the Cup?, that healing only occurs when we share our pain openly and without shame to others. By naming and giving voice to our brokenness and suffering, we realize we are not as alone as we previously believed. Others, too, carry similar fears and worries to our own. 

Read more at Catholic Exchange

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