I had the opportunity to be at Fordham last night for “The Cardinal and Colbert: Humor, Joy, and the Spiritual Life.” In a conversation moderated by the (very funny himself) Fr. James Martin, comedian Stephen Colbert and NY’s Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan traded quips and insights before a crowd of about 3000 (mostly students, with a few interlopers such as myself). I should note that, despite my title, the event was located in the Rose Hill Gymnasium at Fordham. The program was sponsored by, well, just about every major organization at Fordham, but it was billed as a “Mission and Ministry” event.
For an overall summary of the event, with a lot of the key quotes, see Laurie Goodstein’s piece, or this AP one. Fr. Jim Martin has blogged about the event here, including his own opening remarks and other reflections. Cardinal Dolan has put the full text of his prepared opening remarks on his blog. (Unfortunately, this is really only a small percentage of the whole event.) Fordham’s official press info is here.
Just to be clear from the beginning: I loved this event. Just about every aspect of it seemed to me to be well done. From the welcome and opening remarks by theologian Christine Firer Hinze to the closing thank-yous and what-not by Fordham president Fr. McShane–and particularly the moderator and the 2 main speakers–hit a wonderful balance of carrying on a serious conversation about faith and the spiritual life that was at the same time pretty consistently LOL hilarious. And the enthusiasm of the students was infectious and life-giving. For me at least, witnessing their positive response to the speakers and the conversation was an essential part of what I enjoyed about it.
Colbert was very funny, of course. But also his serious commitment to his Christian faith, his love of the Church, and his eloquence about the connections between comedy and the spiritual life really shone through (citing The Screwtape Letters against flippancy–yes!). Cardinal Dolan was unsurprisingly spiritual and insightful, but (to me, at least) surprisingly funny. There were key moments when both men talked about the challenge of laughing in the midst of fear and grief, and the powerful witness it can be to our faith when we in fact retain joy and humor in the midst of loss and death.
But how should we understand what happened at Fordham last night? Laurie Goodstein has suggested that this event “may have been the most successful Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day.” And let me acknowledge that there were many moments last night where the good news was preached and, for those who had ears to hear, preached loudly and clearly. There were moments when Colbert talked quite movingly and eloquently about his love for the Church (“warts and all!”) and his conviction that life is about love, and that passing on the faith of the Church to our children is an important part of showing proper love for them (I’m paraphrasing that, but he basically said it!). Cardinal Dolan gave a pretty powerful if brief lecture on the theology which, somewhat paradoxically, roots our joy in the Cross of Christ, because on that instrument of death, all death was defeated, and what greater source of joy can there be? There is no question that last night’s event had its evangelical edge.
But I’m a bit haunted by something else that was said last night. When Fordham president Fr. McShane made some concluding remarks at the end of the evening, he explained to the speakers and the non-students in the audience that the students (many, most, all?–I’m not sure) had camped out to receive their (free but also hard-to-come-by) tickets to the event. And he repeated something a student had said to him: “This is our U2 moment.” It’s an important, memorable event in the life of a student and a group of students. It’s a memorable event in my life, and, well, I’m older than they are. But I wonder what they’ll remember. Will they remember that they happened to be in a room with a couple of famous Catholics, or will they remember how those men’s Catholic faith shaped them? Will they feel privileged to have touched a bit of celebrity, or will they actually be touched by the faith that was shared?
Throughout the evening, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was quoted a few times: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” The students were so excited, so enthusiastic, seeming so much to enjoy the evening. I want to say that they were joyful and that that joy made the presence of God palpable last night. But enthusiasm and excitement are not the same thing as joy. Joy goes so much deeper. It is what enables us to laugh even in the darkest times, not just when we get to attend awesome events. It also demands more of us than enthusiasm. It is not “putting on a happy face,” but consists in knowing that everything will turn out okay in the end, trusting God to make it so, and faithfully doing our own part in accord with God’s will. That is not easy, and it is not the work of a single evening.
Still, this evening seems to me to have been a pretty good place to start. Even if the students were drawn in by fame and celebrity, perhaps some of them will find themselves inspired to take a closer look at the faith, joy, and love that animate last night’s speakers, and at the Church they love so much. Perhaps the excitement and enthusiasm of last night will take root and grow, bearing fruit in ways that we can only imagine. I hope so.