Are You Happy?

“When you launch out into the apostolate, be convinced that it is always a question of making people happy, very happy: Truth is inseparable from true joy.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Furrow, no. 185

The Church has one question for the world. It is a question asked of rich and poor, of the powerful and the weak, of those behind bars and those relaxing on the beach: Are you happy?

It is a question sometimes tinged with sadness, especially in the face of another’s excessive and self-destructive behavior. But it must always be asked of fallen human beings: Our one drive in this life, into which all other desires feed, is happiness, and fallen people often go after it in misguided and twisted ways. We need help, and a lot of it, in finding a surer path to the happiness that really gets it for us. Because even the worldliest among us will admit that all of the material things and bodily pleasures available in this life never really do the trick. In fact, whether people know it or not, it is the repetition of those futile attempts at happiness that drills discontent deeper and deeper into the human soul.

The question of happiness has everything to do with the questions the Lord asks the apostles about His identity: “Who do men say the son of man is?” and “But who do you say that I am” (Mt 16:13, 15)? Pope St John Paul II once asked a gathering of young people about these questions:

Why does Jesus want to know what people think about him? Why does he want to know what his disciples think about him? Jesus wants his disciples to become aware of what is hidden in their own minds and hearts and to give voice to their conviction…. Because it will reveal what God has poured into their hearts by the grace of faith.1

And what has been poured into their hearts and ours? As the Pope continues:

It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness, he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity.2

To challenge the world with the question of happiness might sound so banal and nonthreatening as to not be a challenge at all, as to not really get at the point of evangelization.

But it certainly gets at the point of human life. We are made for happiness and there is only one way to it. And I would say that it is the calling of the Popes to proclaim that way—that unique, exclusive way which is narrow and not broad, and travelled by relatively few. This message needs to get out in a hurry to the wayfarers of this world, and it is the duty of every Roman Pontiff to remind the world of this happiness that can only be reached by finding Christ as both the Way and the end of the way. Jesus is both the path on which we travel and the goal of all our striving.

After all, as St John Henry Newman says, there might be numerous ways of looking at and interpreting the world, but only one true one:

There are ten thousand ways of looking at this world, but only one right way. The man of pleasure has his way, the man of gain his, and the man of intellect his. Poor men and rich men, governors and governed, prosperous and discontented, learned and unlearned, each has his own way of looking at the things which come before him, and each has a wrong way. There is but one right way; it is the way in which God looks at the world. Aim at looking at it in God’s way. Aim at seeing things as God sees them. Aim at forming judgments about persons, events, ranks, fortunes, changes, objects, such as God forms. Aim at looking at this life as God looks at it. Aim at looking at the life to come, and the world unseen, as God does. Aim at ‘seeing the King in his beauty.’ All things that we see are but shadows to us and delusions, unless we enter into what they really mean.3

The mission of the Holy Father is to help the world see the world from God’s perspective. St Peter learned this lesson just moments after confessing Jesus as Christ. As soon as Peter rejects the idea of a suffering Christ, that same Christ raises His voice and fires back at him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). You see the world as a mere man, not from God’s vantage point. St Peter learned that he needed a deeper discernment to detect the ways of God, especially when the unhappy experience of suffering is the Lord’s chosen way to glory. By this point in the gospel, Peter had enough experience of Jesus to know that what the Master does, the disciple must imitate. And it frightened him. He too wanted happiness, but since he did not want it apart from Christ. His dilemma was how to incorporate suffering into his desire for it.

The story of Peter’s life from Pentecost forward, however, is the story of man loosening his grip on his own judgment and following the Spirit’s lead. So that by the time he is brought into the Roman circus at the Vatican to be executed, he is ready to intensify his sufferings by embracing crucifixion with head thrust downward. What happened to this man was a lifetime’s work of grace, the process of transformation in Christ and into Christ. That happiness, the lasting happiness of beatitude, could be gained by a fuller sacrifice of self came instinctively to him by the time God deemed him ready for his passage from death to eternal life.

Something has gone very right in the life of a man whose impulses for self-preservation have been replaced wholesale by the consuming need to give himself—both for the glory of God and the life of the Church. Is this not the model, the exalted and daunting example, of what the Roman Pontiff is called to be? He lives, speaks, teaches, suffers and dies, not for himself alone, but for all of God’s scattered children. And like any good father, the Holy Father wants happiness for all of his children, yet without hiding the need for tough decisions and sacrifices to attain it:

What a marvellous destiny! To live by God and with God always, to be happy for ever together with him!

God, however, does not want us to be safe and happy in an unconscious way or unwillingly, but he calls for our conscious and free collaboration, placing us before the “tree of the knowledge of good and of evil”, that is, he proposes to us a choice, he demands from us a test of faithfulness.4

It is the task of any good preacher, but especially of the Pope, to present the goal and ideals of our faith without compromise as demanding, yet attractive and possible. John Paul II had a particular gift of conveying all of this especially to the young—a tougher audience, perhaps, but whose youthful generosity he knew he could tap into. And they responded, by the thousands and millions.

A concluding image of John Paul II in his communist-controlled homeland is really emblematic of all that the Pope can accomplish on the world’s stage. In his famous homily at Victory Square, Warsaw, in 1979, he told the assembled thousands that there is no area of human life where Jesus Christ does not have the right to enter—no latitude or longitude is off limits to Him. And as he invoked the Holy Spirit to renew and set his country free, people applauded for almost 15 minutes, and the Pope let them do it. They began chanting “We want God” and singing “Christus vincit.”

When a homily can make a multitude stand up and cheer, rise to their feet and demand God, something has gone very right. It shows what the Holy Spirit can do with a man who wants to be used by Him, who wants to spread the fragrance of Christ all over the world. And if that man is the Roman Pontiff, God will empower him to repeat St Peter’s own Pentecostal preaching that converted thousands on the spot (cf. Acts 2:37-42). But on the world’s stage, before multitudes of confused and unhappy souls, the prospects are even greater.

Whether the Vicar of Christ speaks to a Jerusalem crowd or to the entire globe, the same root desire for happiness brims uppermost in his hearers, the same hope for an answer, a way out of our human misery. And people will listen to one who not only claims to know that way, but has power to draw out of their hearts a personal desire for the happiness that has a name above every other name, a teaching that will not pass away, and a love so omnipotent that it gives itself unto death and then returns to assure us that life—true Life with Him—is the that happiness He has prepared for us.


1 ADDRESS OF THE HOLY FATHER JOHN PAUL II: 15th WORLD YOUTH DAY VIGIL OF PRAYER, Tor Vergata, Saturday, 19 August 2000: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/2000/jul-sep/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20000819_gmg-veglia.html  
2 ADDRESS OF THE HOLY FATHER JOHN PAUL II: 15th WORLD YOUTH DAY VIGIL OF PRAYER, Tor Vergata, Saturday, 19 August 2000
3 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 5, Sermon 3: “Unreal Words”: https://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume5/sermon3.html
4 John Paul II: ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS JOHN PAUL II TO THE YOUNG PEOPLE GATHERED IN THE VATICAN BASILICA, Wednesday, 20 December 1978: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1978/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19781220_giovani.html

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019) and Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith (Scepter Publishers 2020). Father's latest book is Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel (Scepter Publishers 2021). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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