A Priest Walks Into A Bar…


Purim, which starts next Wednesday night, is a reminder of the importance of humor in Jewish life — the holiday is traditionally a time of pranks and frivolity. A new book, “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life” (HarperOne, $25.99), by James Martin, a Jesuit priest who works as culture editor at “America,” a prominent Catholic magazine, is a reminder that humor plays a part in other religions. In his book, Father Martin, who entered the priesthood after six years in the corporate world, shares experiences and insights from Christian and Jewish perspectives.

Q: Everyone knows about funny rabbis — think Jackie Mason. Who knew about funny priests?

A: I knew! Most Catholic priests are able, for example, to liven up a Mass with a joke at the beginning or the end, and even weave a funny story into their homilies. It’s a part of being a good preacher: grabbing the audience with some levity.

The larger problem, though, is that Christianity itself is seen as a gloomy religion — all that focus on suffering, sin and all that. Sometimes, then, when a priest is funny during the Mass he is castigated afterwards by some of the “frozen chosen” who feel that any expression of mirth is inappropriate. “Father, I didn’t come to a pep rally!” one parishioner told me after Mass one day, when I had used one joke. And I said, “Yes, but you didn’t come to a funeral either.”

Most Catholics know a few good Catholic jokes (say, about a confession, or a priest or a sister). The deeper problem is a misunderstanding of Jesus, who is often thought of as someone who simply suffered … as only the “Man of Sorrows.”

You write about Christian clergy being taken to task by superiors for bringing too much humor into their sermons or religious practice. Is this changing?

Slowly. The more that people “fall away,” as they say, from Christian churches, the more there is an impetus to ask, “Why are they leaving?” So often the answer is “hospitality.” They’re finding more welcoming places to go. And part of that welcome is humor and a certain joy.

How compatible is humor with a “religious life”?

Completely compatible. Because part of the religious life is understanding that you’re not God. You make mistakes. You’re flawed, imperfect, and, in a word, human. Thus it is essential to laugh at yourself and laugh at humanity in general, to remind us of our limitations.

What differences have you found between the Jewish and Christian sense of humor?

That may depend more on the part of the country in which you find yourself. For example, “New York Jewish” humor, in my experience, is somewhat different than Jewish humor in other regions of the country. Jewish humor in New York has a certain irony. Some of Jewish humor, I would suggest, may have come in response to centuries of anti-Semitism and persecution — so there is also an element of Jewish humor as a sort of relief from suffering as well, as a way to make it through a difficult life.

Why doesn’t your faith have a holiday like our Purim, which stresses humor and pranks and putative scholarship in the guise of “Purim Torah”?

Beats me. We could certainly use one. Of course you could point to Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday (i.e., “Fat Tuesday”) but that’s not an official holiday, more of a cultural one. The most joyful day of the Christian year of course is Easter, and there used to be a tradition in Germany called the “risus paschalis,” when the priest would tell jokes to demonstrate the triumph of life over death, to “laugh” at the devil, and in a sense, to be joyful about the resurrection.

Yiddish is a big part of traditional Jewish humor. What part does Latin play in yours?

Latin? Not much. Yiddish probably plays a bigger part in my sense of humor. The difference is that many Jewish families grow up knowing a little Yiddish (at least many of my friends did) while most American Catholic families don’t trade Latin witticisms across the dinner table. You can get a laugh in a Jewish family about some mishegoss, but I doubt that many Catholic families are using clever Latin phrases on a daily basis.

You grew up with Jewish friends and Jewish classmates. How much of their sense of humor rubbed off on you?

Pretty much entirely. It’s probably so ingrained that I can’t identify it by this point. I always say that the most common response to my deciding to enter the Jesuits after working in the corporate world for six years was, “Really? Mazel tov!” To which of course I knew to say, “Toda! [thanks]”