There may be lip gloss and car chases, short skirts and original programming at the most unrespectable of hours, but there is also a priest on the Fox News Channel.
Fr. Jonathan Morris is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of New York, serving its oldest parish, Old Saint Patrick’s, on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. Fr. Morris, a Fox News contributor, is currently en route to Rome, where he has lived and studied, to cover the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II.
But more about that shortly.
Fr. Morris also has a new book out, God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help. He talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about why his book is an ecumenical offering, his road from Rome to Mulberry Street, and more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s up with you wanting people to be happy? You even go so far as to dedicate your book to people looking for happiness, instead of to the woman who gave birth to you! Why is that so important to you — other people’s happiness? And happiness itself, even? Aren’t there more important things?
Fr. Jonathan Morris: For the record, my mother told me she loved the dedication (phew!). I knew my parents would want me to dedicate my work to God and to others, not to them, but I couldn’t help mentioning them in the same dedication. By their example they have taught me life is about love, not achievement; service, not success; righteousness, not reward. I’ll never forget the day my dad told me he had made a choice as a young lawyer to keep only as much money as the family needed, according to an annual budget, and to give everything else away. That’s the environment I grew up in. Looking at them today, I see this apple has fallen pretty far from that exceptional tree. But I’m trying.
Other people’s happiness is important to me because people are important, and I see genuine happiness as the one thing we are all looking for.
Of course, I’m concerned mostly about existential happiness, what we could call “beatitude” or “spiritual joy.” Diving into a strawberry gelato on a hot August afternoon is delightful — and most definitely a sliver of God’s creation we should enjoy — but it won’t satisfy the deepest corners of our being, which long for peace and purpose. This is the kind of happiness I think God wants for us.
Jesus said He came that we might have life, and life in abundance. If we aren’t flourishing, we’re missing out on God’s plan.
Lopez: That’s all fine and good if you’re a priest and you believe God wants people to be happy. But why should I, a random book buyer, care? I just want to be happy myself. I may be reading this with no interest in your church and its theology. Why should I keep reading this interview, never mind pick up your book?
Fr. Morris: If a Buddhist, Mormon, Jew, or atheist whom I trust as honest and wise tells me he or she has insight into happiness, I will surely tune in. As sure as we may be about our religious or political beliefs, it’s important to remember no human being has a monopoly on understanding truth. I dare say Pope Benedict XVI would say as much.
I am always inspired by responses I receive from non-Catholic viewers and readers who are willing to take advice even from someone like me, whom they disagree with on a whole range of issues. I hope the pages of my book bless at least one bleeding heart or hazy mind in search of something more. It doesn’t matter to me if that person is Catholic or not.
Lopez: You released your book about happiness during Holy Week. Isn’t that counter to the message of the Passion? The story of a good man condemned to death by an angry mob?
Fr. Morris: The best one to answer this question is the homebound woman in my parish whom I visited on Easter Sunday. Her knees are at least three times their ordinary size with inflammation. Twenty years ago she went against the advice of her doctors and refused knee transplants because her neighbor told her it was a bad idea. As soon as I sat down with Maria, she began to cry. Tears of joy! She described how the night before she had been alone and lonely when she stumbled across The Passion of the Christ on television.
“Father, I don’t know what happened. Before I knew what I was watching, I was crying my eyes out. I never cry any more. But here I was transfixed by a story whose beginning, middle, and ending I already knew. As I wiped away the tears, my soul was bursting with joy. I was overcome by divine love. Jesus loved me this much. My knees have nothing on what He suffered for me. I can get through this.”
Maria teaches us that the somber days of Holy Week and the history of salvation as a whole are all about God being concerned with our genuine happiness. We call that redemption. It is the story of God saving us from our own sin and offering us an eternal solution to this very imperfect human reality we live today.
Lopez: I know you hear this a lot: “I’m spiritual, but I don’t need religion.” Is that ever true?
Fr. Morris: I hear that all the time. Perhaps it’s particularly common here in SoHo, in lower Manhattan, where my parish is situated. This neighborhood used to be the raw, rough landing area for Irish (early 1800s) and then Italian (early 1900s) immigrants. Now it is more like Hollywood or Santa Monica. My little brother, who lives a few blocks away, over in the “grungy” East Village tells me walking in my “hood” is bad for self-image. No matter who you are, he says, in SoHo you are going to feel old, fat, and ugly. It’s a Mecca of celebrity-style values. One of these secular values, as you point out, is “being spiritual, but not religious.” That may sound good among like-minded peers because we have heard it ad nauseam, but let’s be honest: “Being spiritual” is not a merit we come up with on our own. It is a quality of every human being of every age. We are spiritual because we possess the God-given gift of reason that moves us toward transcendence. We are spiritual because God made us in His image and likeness. Therefore, when we say we are “spiritual, but not religious” we are proclaiming we’ve chosen not to exercise the spirituality we all have. Every human civilization in recorded history has been religious, because humanity senses that spirituality is not meant to be a static quality. We have to work it, express it, and share it, and that’s the essence of being religious.