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.
Hi Dana– So glad you posted something on this (and I’m jealous!) – all the reports sound great. I really appreciate the question you raise about celebrity. I think it is pretty important, and a complicated problem. On the one hand, the post-WW2 American Catholic Church has existed in a media era, and it has thus been spurred by celebrity. Thomas Merton, Fulton Sheen, John Paul II – yes, even Bono – it is hard to imagine my own faith, and surely millions of others, without seeing these figures and in some cases (in my case, Merton, as an undergrad) diving quite deeply into fandom. So it’s pretty important to see people like Colbert and Cardinal Dolan (and Jim Martin himself!) draw a big crowd. Most of all, it sounds like both did a really wonderful job of communicating how personally important and vital faith is in their lives. That is so important. And maybe it should spur the Church to think seriously about how such things can happen more frequently, in wider venues.
On the other hand, let’s say this event had been Jim Martin, Cardinal Dolan, and say… Chris Hinze or Beth Johnson, all discussing faith and joy. What’s the turnout? I mean, that’s heavy-hitting, considering Jim Martin’s sales numbers, but it appears to me that the real star here is Mr. Colbert. Which makes it… uh, interesting, to slide into that list above! What does it mean for Colbert? Is he going to write a spiritual (and undoubtedly funny) book about faith? That would be interesting.
I love what you say about joy here – truly brilliant. Thanks for bringing this forth Dana, thank you.
I hope that this kind of faithful humor will be a key piece of the New Evangelism. It’s been a difficult year for me – for many Catholics – for a variety of reasons and it’s cathartic to enjoy some good laughter (even vicariously…. I’m envious too, Dana!)
Re: your point about the reasons why people were there and what they’ll remember – is this one of those monastic kind of comments along the lines of “the reason I entered the monastery wasn’t the same as the reason I stayed?”
Thanks Dana for this perspective. I think that they should take this show on the road!
May I quibble about one thing though? You quoted Ms. Goodstein who said it “may have been the most successful Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day.”
Has she not seen the extraordinary (though perhaps not celeb-like) effect that Pope Benedict has during his meetings with young people on his trips as in here in the UK, the US, Africa, etc. and 3 World Youth Days…or even his beautiful words this weekend in Lebanon? The young people really respond to his grandfatherly concern and the quiet joy that he radiates.
In any case, outreach to youth is an urgent need in the church. I think that events like this at Fordham are one of many creative ways to communicate to the young and not-so-young.
Thanks for the comments. I’m just speculating here, but I don’t think that this will be a frequent thing for Mr. Colbert. My guess is that the media blockout was so that he could avoid having video out there of him “out of character.” I think that as long as his show is running, this will happen only rarely.
Jana, Jim Martin tells the story (link above) that, at the end of the event, Cardinal Dolan leaned over and said something to the effect of “This is the New Evangelization.” So your instincts are right with his. And right (simpliciter) I think.
But that leads me to Anke’s point, and something that I struggled with in writing this post. Let me be clear. This was a phenomenal event, and has some incredible potential for evangelization. But it’s not World Youth Day or a papal visit. And that line from Goodstein didn’t sit too well with me. Now, we need both sorts of events, right? We need events like this one that get non-Catholics, marginal Catholics, fallen-away Catholics, etc excited about a spiritual conversation and draw them in. But then we also need something more, something to invite them into to continue that conversation and to really show them the faith and what it offers.