If you were in the Bronx last night, that rumbling sound you heard was not an earthquake, or even an especially loud subway car rolling past, it was the sound of 3,000 Fordham students, faculty, Jesuits and guests cheering for Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and Stephen Colbert, the host of “The Colbert Report,” who met for a much-anticipated conversation about the place of joy and humor in the spiritual life. Fordham had invited me to moderate the discussion, called “The Cardinal and Colbert,” which I was delighted to do. Actually, “delighted” is an understatement. “Overjoyed” is better, and in this case entirely appropriate.
The event was the brainchild of two young Fordham theologians, Michael Peppard and Charles Camosy, who pitched it to me over dinner one night in early January. “What would you think about moderating a discussion on humor and faith with Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Dolan?” They hoped to tie it around some of the themes of my book Between Heaven and Mirth. “Great idea!” I said. “We want it to be an example of The New Evangelization,” they said.
The next step was for the university to determine if the participants would be willing and able to come. So the next time Fr. Joseph McShane, SJ, president of Fordham, was able to meet with Cardinal Dolan, he posed the question to His Eminence, who said, “Count me in!” When I passed along Fordham’s invitation, and the Cardinal’s yes to Stephen Colbert, he graciously accepted as well. Finding a date that would fit the calendars of these two busy men proved more difficult for the university, particularly after Archbishop Dolan was created a cardinal in April. (That honor also meant more congregations to sit on in Rome). But eventually, Sept. 14 was chosen.
I’ll spare you the details of the months-long planning process, and the hammering out of details, all of which was spearheaded by Msgr. Joseph Quinn, director of the Office of University Mission and Ministry, but suffice it to say, it was only marginally less difficult than planning the Second Vatican Council. Though everyone knew it would be funnier.
And how! As was reported previously, there was a “media embargo” on the event (to afford the participants privacy to speak about personal matters). But in the iPhone age, trying to get 3,000 people not to report on a newsy event proved more difficult than anticipated. Last night there were several live-tweeters, sending out some of the better lines in real time, including several students and guests. (In retrospect, setting up a hashtag--#dolancolbert--for students to tweet questions to the podium was probably inviting live-tweeting.) Once the tweeting began, a few journalists who were guests in the gym decided the embargo was broken. (This was a surprise: normally embargoes are automatically broken once a reporter files a story; I guess Twitter now counts as filing.) So both The New York Times and the Associated Press published their stories here and here late last night and early in the morning. The day before, The Washington Post filed a story on the upcoming event in the form of a Q&A with me on the topic of joy, humor and laughter. The Times said that last night's event "might have been the most successful Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day."
The evening began with a short introduction by Christine Firer Hinze, co-director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Then I offered a prayer and an overview to the evening’s topic (which I’ll post below) and introduced the two speakers. But before the two luminaries entered the arena, the university screened a clever, animated video of the three of us running to Fordham, created by Tim Luecke, a Fordham art student. Mr. Colbert and Cardinal Dolan emerged on stage to thunderous applause; both briefly addressed the crowd on the topic (Cardinal Dolan’s address is here on his blog). Afterwards we enjoyed a lively 40-minute conversation followed by 15 minutes of questions from the audience. Father McShane concluded the evening with thanks, and gifts.
Without breaking the embargo myself, I can say three things: First, it was fun. I couldn’t imagine two more lively Catholic conversationalists: it was consoling just to be with two people so on fire with their faith, and hear them speak about God. Spiritual conversations are a great grace, and an underappreciated way of drawing people to the faith. Second, it was a joy being among the thousands of Fordham students, many of whom had camped out the night before (beginning at midnight) for the tickets (or, non-forgeable plastic bracelets in this case.) Being among college students is for me always is a spiritual boost; being around so many at once, so obviously touched by the discussion about Catholicism, was a special blessing.
Finally, at the end of the evening Cardinal Dolan leaned over to me and said, “This is the New Evangelization,” and I remembered what Michael and Charlie had said to me all those months before, and I was very, well, joyful.
Oh, and afterwards in a small reception His Eminence offered to buy my mom a beer. She accepted. Cardinal Dolan also told my 14-year-old nephew that there was no need to enter the Jesuits, if he entered the diocesan seminary in a few years he would make him a monsignor. No word whether that offer will be accepted as well.
Here are my opening remarks:
Welcoming the Cardinal and Colbert
Thank you for that introduction. And now, since we haven’t yet prayed yet…let us pray.
Loving God, we thank you for gathering us tonight. We thank you for the gift of our two speakers, who grace us with their presence. Grace us with your presence, God, and open our hearts and minds to one another, as we meditate on the joyful mystery of your love in our lives. We ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
In the beginning, believe it or not, was a laugh.
In the 18th chapter of the Book of Genesis, we meet up with Abraham and Sarah. One day, while they’re minding their own business, three strangers drop by for a visit. The three turn out to be angels, who tell Abraham that his wife is going to have a baby. Now, you’ll remember that Abraham is 100 years old, and Sarah is 99, because she married early. When he hears the news, Abraham, quote, “falls on his face laughing.” Sarah laughs too. And God says, “Why did you laugh?” Sarah says, “I didn’t laugh.” And God says, and I quote, “Yes you did.” In nine months, Sarah gives birth to a boy. They name him Isaac. In Hebrew that’s Yitzakh, which means, “He laughs.” And Sarah says, “And all will laugh with me now because God has brought laughter in my life.” So there it is: Judaism and Christianity begin with a laugh. It’s an early indication of the place of humor and laughter in the Old Testament, which many people think of always and everywhere gloomy. But in the beginning was a laugh.
Later on, in the New Testament we will meet up with Nathaniel. In the Gospel of John, Nathaniel is minding his business when two of his friends tell him, “We have found the Messiah. He is Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathaniel responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” And you know what? That’s a joke—it’s a dig at Jesus’s hometown. Nazareth was a backwater, a small town of only a few hundred people. It’s like saying, “Can anything good come from the Bronx?” It’s a joke! But we’re so used to that story, we’ve heard it so often, that we miss the humor! And does Jesus do when he hears this? Does he reject Nathaniel for making a joke? No, he says, “Now there is an Israelite without guile!” There’s someone I can trust. And he welcomes him as an Apostle. It’s an early indication of Jesus’s appreciation for humor.
Jesus himself uses humor a great deal. Scripture scholars say that some of his parables and sayings would have been laugh-out-loud funny to his listeners. The idea that someone would build his house on sand? Crazy! A father giving his son a stone instead of bread? Ridiculous! Someone with a log in his eye criticizing someone with a speck of dust in his? Funny!
But we don’t get those jokes because we’re not from that culture. Humor is culture bound, so those stories aren’t too funny, since we’re not first-century Galileans. So we miss some of Jesus’s humor, which is there once you know where to look. He gives two of his disciples nicknames, after all. He calls James and John “Boanerges,” Sons of Thunder, because at one point they tell that Jesus that he should call down fire and brimstone on a town they didn’t like. You can imagine Jesus saying, “Oh, here they come: the Sons of Thunder!”
So why don’t we think of Jesus as funny? Well, I posed that question to some scholars when I was researching my book Between Heaven and Mirth, which by the way makes the perfect gift for your friends and family, and is on sale tonight. Anyway, they clued me in on those two important insights: First, we’ve heard the stories so many times that they cease to be funny. Second, humor is culture bound, so we don’t get it. But they mentioned another reason, too.
The Gospel writers had to explain for their readers why Jesus suffered and died as he did. At the time, death on a Cross was a shameful way to die. So, much of the Gospels are spent explaining the Passion. But you know, that’s only one or two weeks of Jesus’s life. For 30 years before that, he lived a human life, in Nazareth, which included laughter. And Jesus’s public ministry, between age 30 and 33, would have been filled with joy: spending time with his disciples, visiting friends like Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany; engaging in table fellowship with outcasts. These are joyful events. For Pete sakes, his first miracle was to make more wine at a wedding party!
Throughout Christian history, many of the saints understood that laughter and humor were important. In the third century, St. Lawrence, who was burned to death on a gridiron over hot coals, called out to his executioners, “Turn me over and take a bite, I’m done on this side.” In Latin! You try conjugating two verbs in those circumstances. A century later, St. Augustine prayed, “Lord, give me chastity…but not yet. No comment. The sixteenth-century Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Avila said, “A sad nun is a bad nun. I’m more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits. What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let us each try to use it to cheer one another.”
Saintly humor continues right up until modern times. The most well known contemporary example is Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose most famous joke came when a journalist innocently asked him, "Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?" John said, "About half of them."
In the 1940s, when John was still an archbishop and the papal ambassador in France, he was at an elegant dinner party in Paris, seated across from a woman wearing a very low-cut dress that exposed a lot of her cleavage. His secretary turned to him and said, "Your Excellency, what a scandal!” And John said, “What’s the scandal?” And the secretary said, “Everyone is looking at that woman and her cleavage!” And he said, "Oh no, everyone is looking at me, to see if I'm looking at her."
The saints knew that there were some good reasons for humor. Humor serves serious purposes in the spiritual life. Joyful humor can evangelize, and draw people to God. Self-deprecating humor reminds us of our own humility. Provocative humor can also gently speak truth to power. Humor and laughter are essential in the spiritual life.
Our two guests tonight know that truth, and exemplify it. They are my favorite humorist and Catholic leader, though, from time to time, I’m not sure who is who. Well, they are both.
So let me introduce them both to you. By the way, this is only the third time that they’ve ever appeared together. The most recent time was as honorees at Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People dinner this April. The first time though was as blurbers on the back cover of my book Between Heaven and Mirth, which makes the perfect gift for your friends and family, and is on sale tonight.
Our first guest is Stephen Colbert. Mr. Colbert is the host, writer and executive producer of the award-winning series “The Colbert Report,” which airs on Comedy Central, as you undoubtedly know. The “Report” has received a Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting, and 21 Prime time Emmy nominations. In 2010, he and his writers won the show’s second Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program.
Mr. Colbert’s first book I am America (and So Can You) debuted in the Number One spot on the New York Times bestseller list in 2007, and spent 29 weeks there, occupying the Number One spot for 13 weeks. Not bad. In 2010, Mr. Colbert co-hosted the “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the National Mall in Washington, DC, with Jon Stewart, which attracted an estimated 215,000 people. Mr. Colbert’s show has often demonstrated its support of the U.S. Military, and deployed to Iraq in 2009 with a USO tour entitled “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando.” It was the first television show in US history ever to produce a week of shows in a combat zone.
Last Spring, he released a children’s book entitled “I am a Pole (and So Can You)” about a pole’s quest for identity, and in a few weeks his latest book will be published. It’s entitled America Again: Rebecoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t.
Mr. Colbert, the youngest of 11 children, was born in Washington, D.C., and was raised in Charleston, SC. He graduated from Northwestern University, and became a member of Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe. He and his wife reside with their three children in the New York area. Mr. Colbert will lead off our discussion with a brief reflection on our topic, and will be followed by our second guest, who will also offer a brief reflection.
Let me introduce our second guest in a slightly different manner: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Timotheum, Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Dolan. That’s how you’ll hear his name announced if he’s elected pope in the next conclave, or the one after that.
More likely you know our second guest is known as His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, a post to which he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Cardinal Dolan is also the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a post to which he was elected by his brother bishops in 2010.
Timothy Dolan was born in St. Louis, the first of five children, and began his seminary education at St. Louis Preparatory Seminary South in Shrewsbury, Mo.; he continued his studies at Cardinal Glennon College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He completed his priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he earned his Licentiate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1976. Father Dolan later received his doctorate in American Church history at the Catholic University of America. After serving in parish ministry in St. Louis, he would be appointed as, among many prestigious jobs, rector of the North American College in 1994. In 2001, he was named Auxiliary Bishop of St. Louis by Blessed John Paul II; and he was later named Archbishop of Milwaukee in 2002, where he served until Pope Benedict appointed him to the see of New York. Archbishop Dolan was created a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church by the Holy Father in the consistory this year. And, in May of 2012 he was created a ram by Father Joseph McShane, when he received an honorary doctorate from Fordham.
And now a video from Fordham student Tim Luecke to welcome to Fordham His Truthiness, Stephen Colbert, and to welcome back to his alma mater, His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan.