Politics & Policy

Easter and the Self-Help Aisle

Communicating about the pursuit of happiness

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.

Lopez: “If we begin with the premise that God cannot make a real difference in our lives,” you write, “it only makes sense to try to work things out all on our own, and to try again and again when our attempts come up short.” But you don’t have to be an agnostic, atheist, or self-help guru to do that, do you? Do you know anyone who doesn’t fall into that trap? 

Fr. Morris: I don’t. I wrote the book, and I still find myself depending on my own strength for things I know are beyond me.


Lopez: You write, “Even if we were to live righteous lives out of fear of hell or God’s wrath, fear-induced morality results in a lifestyle of rigidity and frustration. Fearful righteousness is far removed from the flourishing, happy, free life God wants for us.” Is there a danger with your attitude that we wind up with Time Magazine covers wondering if there is such a place as hell? 

Fr. Morris: Time and other similar media outlets like to splash spiritual trash on their covers because it sells. It sells because people care about spirituality, even though they know intuitively it shouldn’t be treated as trash. I’m not scandalized by this. It’s another form of commercial promiscuity; and thank God so many people still care enough about God and religion that they are willing to pay five bucks to find out what shameless shenanigans the editors are up to now.

When I say God doesn’t want us to live righteously out of fear of hell, I am not saying hell doesn’t exist. I am pointing out that God’s modus operandi is not to hold punishment over our heads as the principal motivation to love Him and others. Religious leaders, I think, should follow suit. I have never heard of anyone who got scared into falling in love with his or her spouse. Scaring people into loving God is equally futile. God created us to love and be loved, and love, by definition, is free. Since God will never force anyone to be with Him forever in heaven, there has got to be a place, a state of being, for those who don’t want to be with God. But our real challenge as Christians is to communicate the personal love of God for every one of His sons and daughters.


Lopez: You write: “All things are possible. Life in abundance.” How can you say that with such assurance? You yourself talk about giving a funeral Mass for a man, and no one came to it. I don’t need to tell you there are young people growing up with no clear route out of the cycle of poverty and dependency (and addiction and crime, etc.) they were born into; men and women persecuted for their faith; parents who have lost children; widows and widowers alone; single people made to feel incomplete; people angry, with reason, and without support. How are all things possible? How are these people to live life in abundance? 

Fr. Morris: In my last book, The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts, I take on this issue of suffering more directly and thoroughly. How can an all-loving and all-powerful God allow so much pain in this world and in my life? Here’s the bottom line: God makes us a promise — and He fulfills it in many ways, but ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ — that He will bring forth a greater good out of every single instance of suffering and evil in our lives . . . if we let Him! In God Wants You Happy I try to outline in greater detail how we can let Him work this miracle. It’s not a theological outline, as such, but a practical one founded on revelation, tradition, and real-life stories. I recount the lives of people who show us that no suffering is bigger than God’s love, as seen in His limitless creativity to bring forth a greater good from apparent failure. 


Lopez: You touch on this when you discuss the universal call to sainthood: I can’t literally give up everything and follow — there’s rent to pay, children to feed . . .  We do live here, after all, and greenbacks still are both accepted and necessary. Why should that not keep me from opening my heart? 

Fr. Morris: The universal call to holiness or sainthood I speak of is not a program for angels. It is for us; God delivers it to us in the context of the messiness of our humanity. I think we will be surprised by the saints we encounter in heaven. There is nothing unholy about concern over paying the bills and feeding the kids. Spirit-filled people are the ones who allow God’s grace to seep into every bit of their world. 


Lopez: What is a spirit-filled person? You talk about that creature a lot in the book.

Fr. Morris: She’s the lady with the swollen knees who cries with gratitude when she reflects on all of God’s blessings. He’s the struggling business owner who is willing to go bankrupt rather than cheat his customers. She’s the single mom who lives for her children and never loses hope. He’s the priest or pastor who recognizes he is only an instrument of God’s grace.


Lopez: You write, “It is important to find balance between seeking healing of the wounds which are holding us back, on the one hand, and leaving the past behind us and moving forward in faith, on the other.” But, if you only knew what I did . . .  

Fr. Morris: I do know. That is to say, no matter what we have done, God is able to heal us, and we can move on. King David, who killed the husband of his lover so that he could marry her, became a great king when he recognized his sin and repented. He spent the rest of his life bathing himself in God’s forgiveness and living as a servant-king of his people.  


Lopez: How is “the chance to comfort people in the throes of tragedy” “[a]mong the many wonderful parts of being a priest”? Sounds like it could be a downer.

Fr. Morris: Sometimes it is a downer, emotionally. I visited a gentleman in the hospice this morning. He is from my neighborhood and a Catholic, but I had never seen him in the church, and by the time I was called, he was already unconscious. I gave him the sacrament of the sick, and I’ll probably do his funeral later this week. There is nothing emotionally wonderful about all that. It’s a chance to trust purely in God’s mercy. There are other moments of comforting God’s people, however, that do warm the heart. Just as I was leaving the hospice, I caught myself asking the nurse if there was anyone there who had no family or friends. She immediately pointed me to 6B. It was the half of room 6 occupied by a Mr. Harris. I took his hand and spoke in a loud voice. His eyes remained closed, his head down. After a few futile attempts to connect with him, I raised my voice even louder and told him he looked wonderful. I told him he was strong. I placed a Yankees cap on his head and laughed at him. With eyes still closed, and to my great surprise, he squeezed my hand with the grip of a twenty-year-old. A few minutes later he opened his eyes wide, recognized the collar, and asked one thing: “Did you come here, Father, just to see me?” “I did, Mr. Harris, I did.” He cried like a baby. More tears of joy. Comforting people in the throes of tragedy is sometimes a downer emotionally, and sometimes it feels good. It is always a blessing for my soul. 

Lopez: Is faith a gift? If so, aren’t you just conning us with your book? I could buy it and still not have the gift — will I get my money back?

Fr. Morris: I think I sent you the book for free, Kathryn! But you are right, faith is what we need, and I don’t provide it in these pages. I do hope, however, that I am offering people, and myself, the motivation and guidance to better prepare our souls to receive the theological gifts of faith, hope, and love. There’s good precedent for that kind of preparation: John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the way for the Lord.


Lopez: I hear that you have a pretty happening Mass for young people at Old Saint Patrick’s on Sunday nights. You’re not remaking anything, I assume. So what’s so special, that I keep hearing about it from young people from different walks of life in New York?

Fr. Morris: We are just offering the Gospel in love and truth, and people are showing up in increasing numbers at all our Masses. It’s a team effort, and we are led by a great pastor, Monsignor Don Sakano. I know this is happening too at many other churches throughout the city.

The whole phenomenon of a religious rebirth in SoHo, New York — and this is what we are seeing — is quite curious, admittedly. Most of our congregation consists of young professionals whose Catholic parents don’t go to Mass regularly and never told their kids they should. Others were brought up by parents who didn’t teach them any religion at all “so as not to influence them inappropriately.” These smart young people are rebelling against the culture of their parents’ generation, which preached religious and moral relativism. It is a culture that said, in so many ways, that we can pick and choose our own religious diet, with no consequence, because there is no absolute truth. I’m finding the young adults of SoHo are seeking absolutes, reasons for believing. When they find them, they invite their friends to see what they have found. It’s not unlike the first Christian communities that flourished in the pagan Roman Empire.


Lopez: Why would anyone become a Catholic today? With all the scandals? And who the heck knows what Catholics believe, given the way we act — often in prominent and powerful ways?

Fr. Morris: If you could have seen the dozens of young people step up to be baptized and confirmed at our parish this Easter and the hundreds of others throughout the Archdiocese of New York, you would be even more curious. Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.


Lopez: Do you think debates over the all-male priesthood and celibacy will subside a bit — at least as a contentious issue among women religious — as we find our way out of the ravages of the sexual revolution?

Fr. Morris: I don’t think so. We haven’t yet taught the faithful what we believe about these issues, in depth. I’m of the opinion we need to give women more positions of leadership and authority within the Church. I’m not talking here about female priesthood, for the priesthood is not first about authority or leadership. As priests, we are called to paternal service of God’s people in imitation of Christ. We exercise this spiritual paternity, “in persona Christi,” in the celebration of the sacraments. The Church can’t change what Jesus established. But, yes, I would like to see more women in positions of leadership in the Vatican and in diocesan and parish structures. Why? Because, as Church, we aren’t tapping fully into the feminine genius. I’m quite certain, for example, that we would have caught the problem of clerical pedophilia sooner and treated it with greater wisdom and strength if women had been more involved in the decision-making on a local and international level.

Regarding the requirement of priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church, here too I think we should be at once prudent and unafraid of dialogue about faithful alternatives. There is great theological, pastoral, and practical value in the long-standing tradition of clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church, but we shouldn’t silence those who suggest changes to what falls under the category of Church discipline, not dogma.


Lopez: You write frankly about Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the religious order that you were until recently a member of. You took a vow; this wasn’t a gym membership — leaving was and is no small thing. As I say, you write honestly about it and the grief you still feel when telling the story — about the victims, about the fraud. “The man who for years taught me to believe in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life was secretly entangled in a web of activity as antithetical to Jesus’ teachings as one could imagine.”

And yet, you write: “I cannot tell you this story without being overwhelmed by grief. Had I known as an idealistic young man of 21 that saying yes to God would mean leaving all to follow in the footsteps of a man some psychologists would later call a psychopath and a sociopath, I surely would have been overwhelmed by the prospect of what would come my way. . . . I’m glad I didn’t see it coming, for I’m glad I am where I am . . . [S]everal years into this drama, I can say with confidence that I believe God did call me to embark on what turned out to be a very crooked path, and I am grateful He gave me the grace to say yes.”

You get into this in the book a bit: How do you make sense of all those who were victimized and hurt? And other stories we know of?

Fr. Morris: I can’t make sense of it, Kathryn. What I can do, and I do this in the book, is ask forgiveness for my incredulity concerning the accusers’ claims and the harm such disbelief caused the direct and indirect victims of Fr. Maciel’s multiple forms of abuse. I didn’t believe the accusers, and I told other people they shouldn’t believe them either. I am deeply sorry for that. Thank God, people with knowledge of the truth didn’t give up on their cause.


Lopez: You go on to say that your reaction may have to do with both your experience — while it was going on, you never saw the fraud of his life — and your personality. That we all deal with things uniquely you describe as “a sacrosanct principle to be remembered when we encounter human suffering.” We have to allow for freedom in those we love, don’t we? Be patient and loving and somewhat detached, which is so hard, so often?

Fr. Morris: I said my reaction has not been one of anger or bitterness. I feel peaceful and serene with where God has me now. No, of course I wouldn’t have entered the order had I known everything I know today. But I did the right thing then by following my conscience. And I received so much good from God and from the members and leadership of the order during my 16 years there. Theologically speaking, I don’t think God writes straight with our crooked lines, but He does bring good out of evil, and He knows how best to take care of every one of His sheep.

I’m confident that many very good men are choosing another path, to stay within the Legion of Christ in fidelity to their own conscience, and, please God, they will be part of a genuine renewal of the order. There’s a ton of good there. The Legionary priests whom I know, and whom I will always consider brothers and friends, love God and love the Church. They have a gift of spiritual and evangelistic enthusiasm that the Church will benefit from, once it is purified from the cultural maladies that are understandably still present.

The great moral of this story as I see it now is that God is the Hound of Heaven, as Francis Thompson puts it in his classic poem. God pursues us up and down the hills and forests of life, even when we are running all the wrong ways, ironically, in pursuit of the Hound. When we open our eyes we discover God is right behind us, and all around us.

This whole painful experience of the last few years shaped the book into a very personal project of personal renewal.


Lopez: Is that, in part, why your book isn’t a catechism, but more of an invitation?

Fr. Morris: Probably. I’m not anyone to tell people how to build a perfect life. I’m a fellow sojourner who is seeking the face of God.


Lopez: Is it odd to be “the Fox News priest”? 

Fr. Morris: Not really. Media are just that . . . media; they transmit your message. The Fox News Channel has been very respectful of the fact that I am there to give my opinion, not anyone else’s. Their executives, producers, and anchors have never even insinuated what I should or shouldn’t say. I offer my take on things, and they have other people on the channel who challenge my affirmations. I like that from a news channel.


Lopez: Have you learned anything important about communications and pastoral care from it?

Fr. Morris: Yep. Mercy. Showing mercy and compassion draws people to God, because God is love. I think Jesus’ method of pastoral care invites us to be unwavering on principle, and brazenly merciful in practice. 


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