The evening was billed as an opportunity to hear two Catholic celebrities discuss how joy and humor infuse their spiritual lives. They both delivered, with surprises and zingers that began the moment the two walked onstage. Mr. Colbert went to shake Cardinal Dolan’s hand, but the cardinal took Mr. Colbert’s hand and kissed it — a disarming role reversal for a big prelate with a big job and a big ring.
Cardinal Dolan was introduced as a man who might one day be elected pope, to which he said, “If I am elected pope, which is probably the greatest gag all evening, I’ll be Stephen III.”
The event would not have happened without its moderator, the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prolific author who has made it his mission to remind Catholics that there is no contradiction between faithful and funny. His latest book is “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”
Father Martin said in an interview earlier this week that the idea came from two young theology professors at Fordham. The university’s president, the Rev. Joseph M. McShane, invited Cardinal Dolan to participate, and he readily accepted. Father Martin, who has made enough appearances on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central to earn the title “official chaplain,” invited Mr. Colbert.
The event was announced with much fanfare by Fordham, and CNN was considering broadcasting it, Father Martin said. But then the university announced that it was closed to the media, without any explanation. Three thousand students and faculty members filled the Rose Hill Gymnasium, stomping on the bleachers, doing the wave and chanting “Ste-PHEN” like the revved-up audiences for Mr. Colbert’s studio show.
Some journalists were admitted as guests, and the cone of silence was shattered when many students and an editor from the Catholic magazine Commonweal sent out live posts on Twitter narrating the most memorable one-liners.
Mr. Colbert shed his character for the evening and offered several sincere insights into how he manages to remain a faithful Catholic while making fun of his own religion and most others.
He said he did not make jokes about the sacraments, or put a picture of the crucifixion on screen. But he said he liked to poke fun at the use and misuse of religion, especially in politics. “Then I’m not talking about Christ,” he said, “I’m talking about Christ as cudgel.”
Mr. Colbert is the youngest of 11 children, raised by Catholic parents who both attended Catholic colleges. His father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash when Mr. Colbert was 10. He said that after the funeral, in the limousine on the way home, one of his sisters made another sister laugh so hard that she fell on the floor. At that moment, Mr. Colbert said he resolved that he wanted to be able to make someone laugh that hard.
He is raising his children as Catholics, and he teaches Sunday school at his parish in New Jersey. “The real reason I remain a Catholic is what the church gives me, which is love,” he said.
Cardinal Dolan introduced Mr. Colbert’s wife, Evelyn, who was sitting in the audience, and brought her up to the stage. The cardinal put his arm around her and gave her a kiss on the cheek, and when Mr. Colbert feigned offense, the cardinal said, in a remark that brought down the house, “I can kiss your wife. You can’t kiss mine.”
Mr. Colbert used his time onstage with the cardinal to air his complaints about the new English translation of the Mass, which was just introduced in American parishes this year.
“Consubstantial!” Mr. Colbert exclaimed, using a particularly cumbersome word that is now recited in the Nicene Creed. “It’s the creed! It’s not the SAT prep.”
The audience sent in questions by Twitter and e-mail, which Father Martin pitched to the two men. Among them: “I am considering the priesthood. Would it be prudent to avoid dating?”
Cardinal Dolan responded that, on the contrary, “it’s good” to date, partly to discern whether the celibate life of a priest is what you want. Then he added, “By the way, let me give you the phone numbers of my nieces.”
Mr. Colbert said, “It’s actually a great pickup line: I’m seriously considering the priesthood. You can change my mind.”
Another question was even more pointed: “So many Christian leaders spread hatred, especially of homosexuals. How can you maintain your joy?”
Cardinal Dolan responded with two meandering anecdotes — one about having met this week with Muslim leaders, and another about encountering demonstrators outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
But Mr. Colbert’s response was quick and unequivocal. “If someone spreads hate,” he said, “then they’re not your religious leader.”