September 17th, 2012
06:32 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
(CNN)– What do you get when you mix the highest profile American Catholic bishop, an icon of American comedy, a priest who regularly writes about comedy and a media blackout?
The answer: a unique look at the cross-sections of faith, humor and joy.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the highest ranking Catholic in the United States, and comedian Stephen Colbert, the host of the popular late night comedy show “The Colbert Report,” put their views of faith and humor on display for a private audience of 3,000 at Fordham University on Friday night.
The event was closed to the press, save a few invited journalists who came as guests. But despite the embargo, some attendees shared the play-by-play over social media, turning what was supposed to a private event into a free-for-all. A number of reporters in attendance also wrote about the conversation on faith, some suggesting that any embargo on the information had been shattered by social media.
“My assignment was to share with you for a few moments what you might call the theological reasons for laughter,” Dolan said in his opening remarks he later posted on his blog. “Why would a person of faith be cheerful? Why is a crabby believer a contradiction?”
“Here’s my reason for joy: the cross,” Dolan said, who went on to argue that the reason for happiness is the fact that even after Jesus was crucified, he rose three days later.
“ ‘He who laughs last, laughs best…’ and we believers have never stopped smiling since that Resurrection of Jesus from the dead,” Dolan said. “So, Good Friday did not have the last word…Easter did! That’s why I can laugh.”
The event, moderated by the Rev. James Martin, took place in front of 3,000 cheering students in Fordham’s gymnasium.
Colbert is the youngest child in a family of 11 kids and was raised by Catholic parents. The comedian is also raising his child Catholic and he even teaches Sunday school in New Jersey. Dolan, while also being a cardinal in the Catholic church, is the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church’s U.S. arm.
In an interview after the event, Martin said the response they received “exceeded anyone's wildest expectations.”
“Spiritual conversations like that are one important way to draw people to the faith,” Martin said. “And listening to people speak honestly and openly about not only the joys of their faith, but also the struggles they have with the church, is naturally attractive.”
In a side conversation with Dolan, Martin told CNN that the high-profile Catholic said that this sort of event is “the new evangelization.”
Due to the desired media blackout, much of what is known about the event came from Twitter via Grant Gallicho – the associated editor of Commonweal, a lay Catholic journal, and others using the hashtag #Dolbert and #DolanColbert.
During the event, Martin took questions from the crowd and via Twitter. At times, the questions took a serious look at deeply-held issues of faith. According to Gallicho’s tweets, a question from the audience included, “How to maintain joy when religious leaders spread hate, esp. with respect to homosexuality?”
Gallicho later tweeted that Colbert said: “If someone spreads hate, he's not your religious leader. Keep your own joy.”
According to a New York Time story, Dolan gave a “meandering” answer to the question.
A Public Religion Research Institute poll earlier this year found that almost 60% of Catholics supported allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, despite church teaching to the contrary.
One of the best received jokes of the night was in response to a question about joining the priesthood and it’s requirement of celibacy. Dolan encouraged men thinking about the priesthood to date. Colbert chimed in and quipped it would be a great chance to use the pick up line, "I'm considering the priesthood, but maybe you can change my mind,” Gallicho tweeted.
Another zinger came in exchange between the cardinal and the comedian. Dolan asked, "Do you feel pressure to be funny all the time?" Colbert fired back: "Do you feel pressure to be holy all the time?” according to a news release by Fordham.
The event was the idea of Michael Peppard and Charles Camosy, two Fordham professors who came to Martin with the idea. They wanted to tie it to his recent book, “Between Heaven and Mirth."
In Martin’s opening remarks, he touched upon the way that Dolan and Colbert use humor.
“They are my favorite humorist and Catholic leader, though, from time to time, I’m not sure who is who,” Martin said.
CNN had been in negotiations with event organizers, with the hopes of live streaming the event and broadcasting a taped special after the event. Negotiations broke off abruptly when the organizers decided to close the event to the media.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.