The ‘Sourpuss’ or ‘Vinegar Face’ Syndrome

By Br Mark O'Connor FMS, 16 September 2021
Pope Francis has a low tolerance for gloomy, melancholy Christians whose “pickled-pepper faces” contrast with, rather than convey, the joy of the Gospel. Image: Daria Kulkova/Shutterstock


Pope Francis has a talent for using colourful phrases and images to describe some of the realities people face, as they try to cope, as members of our all too human Church.

Who could forget what the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio told to his fellow cardinals in March 2013, just a few days before they elected him Pope? Here’s the line: “I have the impression that Jesus is locked inside the Church and that he is knocking because he wants to get out!”

The image of Jesus wanting to escape from the often narrow-minded, legalistic and clericalist church we have inherited rings rather true!

Plenty of Catholics have already left us here in Australia and maybe some more won’t bother to return after the COVID pandemic eases off.

Meanwhile, our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their money and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm.

The widespread local prejudice against refugees, and ongoing racism against indigenous people, says it all.

Our Christian vocation, however, is still relevant: as we strive in our ministry to imagine free and fearless spaces where brotherhood and sisterhood, in the way of Jesus, can be formed and fully experienced.

No wonder then Pope Francis is very concerned that we, who are ministers of the Good News, don’t ‘kick more own goals’ and further burden the people we minister to.

Hence Francis’ witty way of referring to some church people as ‘sourpusses’ – which can also be translated as ‘vinegar faces’!

For Francis, the ‘sourpuss’ is acidic, biting, driving hope out of people rather than putting joy into them. Sourpusses ‘annoy’ Francis more than just about any other kind of person because they end up substituting the works of adhering meticulously to legalistic fine print over the faith from which flow joy and magnanimity.

Sourpusses rely on themselves, and there are many in the church in Australia.

Pope Francis has a low tolerance for gloomy, melancholy Christians whose “pickled-pepper faces” contrast with, rather than convey, the joy of the Gospel. Instead of living from a profound security in the love of Jesus that assures them of tenderness and forgiveness, and that gives them deep-down joy, they live from the pseudo-security of their own ‘uprightness’ and moralising.

Sourpusses are inward-looking and self-focused. But the entire thrust of Pope Francis’ ministry, and of the pastoral care that he wishes people to receive, centres on going out. So he states that “an evangeliser must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.” (Evangelii Gaudium 10).

If we are honest, all of us must admit that it is very easy to become grumpy and disgruntled at times in our service of others.

Perhaps we are overworked and interrupted by overly demanding people. But Pope Francis’ timely call is for us Christians to avoid the sourpuss syndrome at all costs – for in the words of the martyred Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and cancelling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks …

It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. 

They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s crooked yet straight path. 

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together


With thanks to Cindy Wooden & Joshua J. McElwee for their great book and its insights ​A Pope Francis LexiconLiturgical Press (2018), which was the genesis of this article. 

Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.


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