On Friday evening, I stood in a line in the Bronx, waiting to get the colored plastic bracelet that would get me VIP access into a crowded venue. Before anyone gets concerned that I’m endangering my vows, let me point out that the Cardinal Archbishop of New York was there too. Not to mention a crowd of almost 3,000 students chanting “Steee-phen! Steee-phen!” and “U-S-A! U-S-A!”. Cue an older priest asking: “What are they saying?” Not everyone has citizenship in Colbert Nation.
So the cardinal and the comedian walk into a gym, and…
…the New York Times (the New York Times!) says that it “might have been the most successful Roman Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day.”
What? You were expecting a joke?
Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and Stephen Colbert, who needs no introduction, came to Fordham University on Friday night to talk about humor, joy, and faith. Competition for the tickets was so intense that students, like Apple fans awaiting the new iPhone, lined up before dawn. Those that got the coveted blue bracelet that served as a ticket spent the evening listened to “the Cardinal and Colbert” do ten minute stand-up routines (prepared remarks), before sitting down to a free-flowing conversation moderated by Fr. James Martin, SJ, ranging from whether Jesus laughed at the disciples when they were missing his point (consensus was yes) to whether Colbert felt pressure to be funny all the time (his response to Dolan: “Do you feel pressure to be holy all the time?”).
Despite a media blackout, the event got live-tweeted via both #dolancolbert and #dolbert, which means that the coverage from the NYTimes and the Associated Press already has a couple of the funnier lines from the evening, and Cardinal Dolan and Fr. Martin both posted the text of their remarks. Since the jokes don’t get any better when I retell them, I’ll leave the humor to them.
And here’s what I’ll tell you instead: the jokes were not the most memorable part of the evening. Most of us sitting there in the dark of the Fordham gymnasium came because Stephen Colbert is one of the funniest people on television. But when we filed out, it wasn’t the one-liners that students were talking about; instead they were saying: “They were real.”
“They were real.” That’s what I heard from more than a few students I interviewed after the event; it’s what you’ll hear directly from them:
Stephen Colbert showed up not as the blowhard talking-head host of the Report, but as himself: faithful; joyful; Catholic; youngest of 11 children; father of three himself; Sunday school teacher; more than a bit of a Bible nerd — he told one joke which only worked if you happened to know the somewhat obscure story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. (For the record: the Jesuits and theology profs in the audience laughed uproariously; the students, not so much. Though they shouldn’t have been surprised — if you’re part of Colbert Nation, you already know that Stephen has impressive Catholic geek credentials.)
And Dolan showed up as himself as well. While Timothy Cardinal Dolan is larger than life no matter how small the stage is, what caught the attention of the students was his genuine eagerness and joy in conversing with Colbert about the faith they share.
For a few hours, on a Friday evening in the Bronx, a bishop listening did more to preach the Gospel than any number of homilies could have. So let the Times and the AP and the twitter hashtags tell you what jokes they told; I want to tell you about what they said between the jokes, about the faith beneath the laughter.
They talked about the unfakeable joy that comes from knowing that Jesus always gets the last laugh, even over death. They shared their love for the Church, and their dismay at how often we manage to make God’s good news seem more boring than the phone book and more painful than a root canal. They spoke about what the world — whether in the TV studio on an Ash Wednesday, or the us-vs-them narrative in which bishops are often cast — doesn’t understand: that joy and laughter cast out fear. They’re obviously full of faith, and they’re obviously having a great deal of fun.
More than once on Friday, we heard C.S. Lewis quoted: “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” More than once on Friday, Lewis was proved right. Stephen Colbert makes his living by pointing out, often hilariously, just how ridiculously contrived much of our contemporary culture is — but we found out on Friday that he makes his life by being sincere about what he really loves.
They were real, and it turned out that, for the thousands of college students in attendance, their authenticity was more engaging than any scripted program could have been.
The Church spends an enormous amount of time and effort trying to understand how to reach young people. Fr. Martin mentioned in his reflection on the event that afterwards, Cardinal Dolan leaned over to him and said “This is the New Evangelization.” I can say “Amen” to that. They were real, and reality is profoundly attractive. Kind of clever of God to make it that way.
A cardinal and a comedian walk into a gym and — here’s the real punchline — 3,000 of us saw two men whose love of God has set them free to be funnier and more joyful than anyone would have imagined.
You were expecting a joke? Would you settle for a minor miracle instead?