Priest sets out to prove that faith and humor go together

James Martin

Catholics just saw one of the biggest mergers of church and pop culture in memory: a public chat about spirituality and humor between Cardinal Tim Dolan, the country's top bishop, and comedian and Catholic Stephen Colbert.

The Sept. 14 event, which was not for broadcast, took place at Fordham University with 3,000 in attendance.

Guiding the event behind the scenes as organizer and onstage as moderator was the Rev. James Martin, a corporate financier-turned-Jesuit.

Martin is particularly well suited to such an event, having cranked out multiple books about joy and faith, keeping more than 12,000 Twitter followers amused every day and serving as "official chaplain" of The Colbert Report.

I asked Martin to talk a bit more about the bringing together of two Catholic American icons and why he thinks Jesus was funnier than people think.

Question: Last year, you came out with a book on spirituality and laughter called Between Heaven and Mirth. This month, you're posting a YouTube video a day of yourself telling religious jokes. Why do you write so much about faith and humor?

Answer: Unfortunately, I think people have equated Christianity with humorlessness, the 'frozen chosen' and all that. People tell me, 'I've never met a funny priest,' which is sad. When you go into a church, the first thing you see is a crucifix, and, as Seinfeld said: 'Not that there's anything wrong with that,' but that's only part of Jesus' story.

We privilege the man of sorrows over the man of joys. Think about art. How many pictures has anyone seen of Jesus smiling? Two or three. How many on the cross? Probably millions. Jesus himself, even after the Resurrection, looks a little ticked off. Same with the saints. Go into a church and all the saints look grumpy. If Jesus is seen as mostly serious, this affects how we see the saints and what it means to be a good Christian.

Q: Why did you decide to do this event with Dolan and Colbert?

A: These are two public, joy-filled Catholics. Why not bring them together? It was meant to be a tool for evangelization in a sense. . . . They are my favorite theologian and my favorite comedian, but sometimes I'm not sure which is which.

Q: This event is garnering huge interest among young Catholics and Catholicism-watchers. Why is it so unusual?

A: Cardinal Dolan is the highest-ranking archbishop in the nation. To couple that level of authority with humor is rare. And you rarely have a figure in the entertainment world who is so public about his Catholicism as Colbert is.

Q: The planning began in January. First it was a public event, and then Fordham announced it would be off the record.

A: Yes, this event has been only marginally less complicated than arranging the Second Vatican Council.

Q: Why?

A: Making sure both would feel comfortable in the setting. The cardinal's office wanted to make sure it was a serious discussion, not a jokefest. And Colbert's office wanted to make sure he would be comfortable outside his onscreen persona.

I respect Cardinal Dolan for going out to where the people are, and I respect Colbert for being willing to reveal his private side. Both are forms of evangelization. They are willing to go outside their comfort zones. Both are interested in the faith. Both really respect the other. And are willing to do this for the good of the church.

Q: Dolan's main topic these days in public is arguing that the country has a religious-freedom crisis. What's joyful about that?

A: The task for any bishop is to balance the joyful part with the more difficult parts. Jesus had the same challenge.

Q: You've been on the Colbert show at least a dozen times. What's he really like?

A: He's very devout. You can tell he knows his stuff. There are real questions he asks under the guise of humor, under the cloak of his character. People don't realize they're being invited into thoughtful questions about religion in a humorous way. He does great evangelizing. . . . We were discussing the recession and whether or not people are more open to experiencing God in times of suffering, and he asked: Why is lack of money equated with an increase of faith? That's a great question.