Father Burns says humor, happiness have a place

CLEMSON—Father Hugh Burns is very good at using levity to help spread God’s message, though he said he’s a terrible comedian.

“I don’t tell jokes because if I don’t repeat them often, I forget them,” he said. The 57-year-old Dominican priest spoke to The Miscellany during a break in a four-day renewal and retreat he led at St. Paul the Apostle Mission in Seneca.

“As a Catholic culture, we are losing sight of the essence of happiness at the heart of our Christian faith,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons today to be sad — family problems, financial problems, marital problems.”

Unlike his other creations, God gave humans the ability to laugh, a gift many in the church have misplaced, the priest said.

Father Burns has kept it in place, however. He has used a lighthearted style of preaching for the past 20 years.

“I learned from [Dominican Father Val La France] to be brave enough to use the humor of the moment,” he said.

Father Burns’ mentor was an international stage actor, singer and producer before being ordained in the Order of St. Dominic at age 38. The two men first met at a parish in Needham, Mass., where the former actor was a pastor and Father Burns was a young man in high school.

The student learned to give a lively talk and be practical. He also acquired “the boldness to use humor” — not in the telling of jokes but in the discovery of levity in the moment.

Father La France, who is now retired, developed this kind of mission about 40 years ago by taking the traditional format and “updating it.”

It’s a method that seems to be effective at congregations his protege has spoken to around the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Father Burns said he does a thorough job of preparing the content for each talk, which allows him to spot potential humorous moments and build on them.

“I know what I’m going to say, the theological doctrinal content,” he said, “and when I know the content I can be free enough to react to different situations, often in humorous ways.”

Father Burns said it is still viable in today’s church.

“Humor looks for the cracks in the world,” he said. “Usually, when an issue can use humor it’s typically one that’s on the edge,” one that needs a tension-breaker.

And, as the Dominican points out, there are plenty of those around these days.

Father Burns said Catholics should simply turn to the Eight Beatitudes at the opening of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a way to refocus on what it means to be a Christian and to be happy.

“What we look for as Christians is a joy that comes from changing the way we look at life,” he said. “The Sermon on the Mount is really a formula for looking at life in a different way. Jesus twists the way we typically look at life and turns it on its head.”

Though it’s not prevalent in the Gospels, Father Burns feels that Jesus probably spliced humor into his sermons.

“What we find in the Gospels is certainly a pared down version of the story that he told,” he said. “I like to tell an engaging story and I think that is what Jesus did. People then, as now, enjoy the spoken word. They enjoy preaching that engages; a preacher that entertains.”