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Laughter in Church

In one of his meditations given on Bavarian radio before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger made passing reference to the custom known as the "risus paschalis" or "Easter laughter". This curious custom, traceable to the fifteenth century, had the parish priest telling funny stories during his Easter homily typically involving Christ fooling Satan while breaking down the doors of the underworld (that trope of Christ outwitting Satan had a patristic ancestry). Ratzinger saw this custom as a way of encouraging joy and laughter in the congregation at Easter. In some places the afternoon on Easter Sunday was devoted to the telling of stories. Evidently, like so many good things, the practice got a bit out of hand, so Benedict's predecessor, Clement X, condemned the practice in the eighteenth century.I pass on this piece of Catholic trivia for its own sake and will resist musing about how such a custom can be comported with the stern strictures against "hilaritas" so often found in ancient ascetic and monastic literature.

About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.



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I truly believe that humor can be a spiritual thing. As someone with a devastating and untreatable progressive illness, I can say it's one of those things that's kept me together.Paul M. -

Paul: I would not disagree. If memory serves me, decades ago Norman Cousins wrote a book in which he chronicled his own struggles with an intractable illness and the role humor and laughter played in his therapy.

Most humor is pain-based, and sometimes it's the best way to beat back physical and emotional pain. Sorta like Groucho Marx and his little girl being turned away from a Gentiles-only country club swimming pool, and Groucho saying, "Well, my little girl is only half Jewish. Could she go in up to her knees?"I think Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" is a great example of humor conquering pain. Have several hankies, though.Question: Were the jokes in the tradition described above in English or Latin?

I just received an email from someone who suggested a reading of "Humour and Faith" in The Essential Niebuhr.

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