Dear Donagh,

…. We have a very light-hearted priest here who cracks jokes in his sermons.  I wonder about it.  I don’t think it’s right for people to be laughing out loud during Mass, and I think it’s very wrong for a priest to be making them laugh.  There should be more reverence.  When I was young no one would open their mouth during Mass.  One of the sins for confession was ‘I was talking during Mass.’  Should I say something to him?  I was talking about this to the family and my daughter said why don’t you write to that website instead?  So that’s my question to you…. Daniel

Dear Daniel,

Yes, I remember the old days too when people didn’t open their mouths at Mass – except for community coughing after the Consecration.  Nor did they open their mouths to receive Communion: very few took Communion more than once a year.  Nor did they open their mouths to make any responses, because in the Tridentine Mass there were no responses for them to make.  I'm sure there were slight variations from place to place, but the general atmosphere of Mass up to the time of the Second Vatican Council was rather grim.  Then the change-over to the vernacular: there was a period when the Mass was partly in English, partly in Latin.  Slowly people got used to the idea of responses, and singing, and signs of peace.  Out of curiosity, about twenty years ago, I attended a Tridentine Mass.  I expected that it would be very nostalgic: it was the Mass my parents knew all their lives, and which I knew in my childhood.  But to my surprise, it had no nostalgic value at all.  What struck me most about it was the disconnection between the priest and the congregation, and the individualism of it all.  The congregation was silent and side-lined.   

You’re not the first to be scandalised by laughter.  In older times laughter, especially in church, was much frowned upon.  St John Climacus (+649) wrote, “I have seen people who were proud of their ability to invent stories and make people laugh.  They totally destroy in their hearers the habit of mourning.”  He had three pieces of advice for when you come across such funny people: 1. Don’t hesitate to be offensive.  2. Let them know that you love God more than they do.  And 3. Remind them of death and judgment.  That should do it.  He was not alone in this view, as I said.  Many of the early Fathers of the Church frowned on laughter – beginning with St Clement of Alexandria (+215), who saw it as an emotional disturbance that ought to be controlled by the rational mind.  He wasn’t very happy with smiling either.  Sometimes the objection of these people was to the physicality of laughter, while they were bent on being spiritual.  St Augustine (+430) noted that babies cry rather than laugh when they are born, demonstrating that human beings are more fitted for tears than for laughter.

Through the centuries, however, the attitude began to soften and change.  In Meister Eckhart (+1328) at least, the change was complete: “When God laughs at the soul and the soul laughs back at God, the persons of the Trinity are begotten,” he said in a homily in church.  “When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love, and that is the Holy Spirit.”  Nor is it a private joke within the Trinity; the divine Persons include us in their laughter.  “God makes merry and laughs at good deeds, whereas all other works… are like ashes in his sight.”  There could hardly be a more complete redemption of laughter than to see it as an insight into the Trinity.  Laughter is famously contagious; it had already spread to Eckhart himself, and I imagine that some of his listeners were tittering in the pews.   

Humour is indispensable in the spiritual life: it is the mind leaping suddenly free from its beaten tracks.  How can we have a liberating intuition if we keep our noses forever to the ground?  No other creature is capable of the creative leap that is humour.  It has a way of bringing out what the controlling mind wants to hide.  When there is no leap, no possibility of a leap, there is only repetition, and then boredom, followed by sleep.  Why shouldn’t we bring this distinctive human gift to God?  It is the best music there is – better than any sleepy hymn.  Contrast its effect on a congregation with the early-onset rigor mortis that we consider normal in church. 

I would agree with you if it was a case of ignorant guffawing, or bitter humour, or if it expressed derision or cynicism.  But a bit of witty seasoning is surely a good thing in a sermon.  And did you know that the word ‘wit’ is related to the word ‘wisdom’?  There used to be a verb ‘to witten’, which meant: ‘to be wise, to utter wisdom’, but sadly it has become obsolete.  Could it be that your curate is helping to restore it?

You ask if you should speak to him about his jokes.  Only if they are very corny. 


This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to