“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” – Psalm 98:4
By Charlie Johnston
When my kids were little I had become close friends with a big, brawling extended family of a fellow I collaborated with in politics. One year I had passes to the Milwaukee Zoo’s Winter Night Lights Festival, when the zoo would open at night with Christmas lights all around for a few weeks. The son of Cindy, one of the women in the family, had become close with my two children, so we agreed to pick him up and take him along. At the time, Cindy had seven children. When we arrived at her house her brother, Joe, was there. I started describing how magical the zoo is at night with the Christmas lights out. Cindy got absolutely charmed by my description. She was so enthused I told her everyone could go – my pass was not limited. So she asked Joe if he could come and help her with the kids. Alas, Joe had another engagement he could not change. She had a huge, 12-passenger van, so I told her let’s load everyone up and head on out. She was still a little wary about whether I would get flustered with so many kids. I told her I was the oldest of six in my own family – and then delivered the clinching line with a broad grin, “Besides, it will drive the Planned Parenthood types nuts.”
So we loaded up and headed out. Oh, it was magical! The temperature was in the low teens. There came one of those twinkly snows you only get when it is very cold – a snow that is more like glittering fairy dust than anything else. A vivid, evocative snapshot remains engraved in my memory; a Bengal tiger resting regally in that way cats do atop a ledge, gazing serenely out at us, his subjects, as the snow twinkled ever so delicately all about him. What a hoot when we decided to get hot cocoa and snacks for the kids! With nine kids in near-zero weather, you really need a logistics consultant to perform the simplest tasks. We laughed and carried on and had an unforgettably joyful, if raucous, night.
Cindy and I became great friends. Her home parish was the Church I usually went to Daily Mass at before starting my midday radio shift – and she was usually there with some of the kids. We had so much fun together with all the kids that, when I phoned her house, it tickled her husband, if he answered, to call out, “Cindy, it’s your boyfriend!” (if you knew how joyfully saintly she is, you would know there was nothing untoward intended or ever taken by it. It was just amusing – but she did know who he was talking about).
On several Christmas Eve celebrations, I was invited by the larger family clan to join them at the home of the Patriarch and Matriarch of the whole bunch. Ha! You could have 50 people there at any given moment, sometimes much more. The grand patriarch, Papa Nick, father of all my friends in that extended family, makes the most fabulous roast in the history of the world. At one of these celebrations, Cindy took me aside and told me, face glowing, that she was pregnant – and she wanted me to be the first to know. I was a little taken aback and chuckled that that didn’t sound quite right. She was immediately earnestly sincere and said, “Charlie, you were the one person I knew who would be completely overjoyed about it.” I was a bit startled: all her brothers and sisters were pro-life activists, some of them prominent. As we talked she said that even in a big pro-life family, the jokes get made about how maybe you don’t know what’s causing it and you feel the subtle disapproval that maybe you are taking things a bit too far when you have so many, “but I knew you would feel nothing but joy that a new soul is coming.” In my entire life, it is the compliment I most cherish.
When my son was out visiting me last month, we visited with some close friends of mine who have seven children. They are a raucous, joyful bunch. My little granddaughter just loved it, jumped right in with them having a right jolly old time. We had dinner, laughed, joked…we all said a somewhat fractured family Rosary together (you try being piously serene while the two-year-old is running, giggling and jubilantly tugging at people’s legs and hair), then laughed some more. The household radiates joy – which is why I so love visiting them. While my son was with me in the mountains, he referred back to them – and told me that is what he dreams of…having a big, raucous, joyful family that plays together roughly, argues together loudly, and loves each other fiercely.
Last week, when Pope Francis said Catholics need not procreate “like rabbits,” my heart went out to him. Having been in media and public politics a long time, I have said a few dumb things off the cuff that I immediately regretted and didn’t mean. But my heart went out more to all the faithful families who I know must have been cut to the quick by that statement. Not a one has commented to me about it, but I have talked often with the parents of large families about the silent disapproval they always face – and the open disapproval they frequently face in these benighted times. It has got to hurt when the leader of the very institution you are living fidelity to seems to criticize you for that very fidelity. I am sure the Pope has tortured himself over this one…when you read the transcript he seemed to be trying to reach out to some population control types, not mocking faithful Catholics.
When my kids were little, being a single Dad, frequently people tried to commiserate with me over what a burden it must be. Whether the kids were around or not, I always responded that it was a complete joy. Well known as a fanatical lover of baseball, I would usually say with a big grin, “Oh, it will tire you out, but it is the good tired, like how you feel after playing baseball all day long – exhausted, but satisfied and grateful you got to enjoy what you love all day.” I was offended by the culture that considers children an optional burden. Even more, I was horrified that my kids would ever think I thought them a burden, when they were and remain my greatest joy. I didn’t mind them knowing I was mad or irritated or crabby – but I never wanted them to doubt for a minute that they were my heart…even if I, at a particular moment, seemed intent on wringing their little necks. There is no greater, no more joyful honor, than to know that God has entrusted some of the little souls He made into your care for a time. Guiding them into life is the greatest, most joyful adventure any of us will ever live. I have lived many roles and had a few titles in my life…but internally…how I see myself…is as a Catholic father. To bring children into the world in these times, to love them, to hang in there with them, is the most generous single act of faith, hope, charity, love and fortitude I know of. The people who step out in faith and have large families are those who will rebuild the very concept of family. In doing so, they are the vanguard of those who will rescue our culture. They are the brave lights who, even now, are busy renewing the faith of the world. Thank God for them.
I delight in how Pope Francis’ bold personality has broken down so many barriers with people outside the faith, including even some who are hostile to the faith. He is an Evangelist par excellence. But it is a brutally tough calling to live. Please join me in praying that the Lord helps the Holy Father to persist in the boldness that breaks down barriers to those without while keeping it from becoming brashness that unintentionally wounds the faithful within.
You may wonder why I titled this column, “A Joyful Noise.” Go to a schoolyard, to the home of a big family – anywhere that many children are at play, wrestling, laughing and fussing with each other. You’ll figure it out. And as for those generous parents who give of themselves with fortitude and love to keep raising up that joyful noise on behalf of the whole world, thank you. Every time you change a diaper, wipe a nose, sit up all night with a sick child soothing and comforting him, it is a sweet incense rising up to the Lord. You lay up treasure for us all in heaven.