Just when you thought you knew Stephen Colbert, the newly appointed king of late-night comedy is about to offer a surprising look into his very soul. Shortly before he took over the reins for David Letterman on CBS’s The Late Show, The Colbeard sat down with Father Thomas Rosica, media attaché to the Holy See Press Office and CEO of Salt and Light Television based in Toronto, Canada, and poured his heart out about his job, his devout faith, and Pope Francis.
The extensive exclusive interview, which is at times hysterically funny and profoundly serious, airs in full on Rosica’s interview program Witness on September 13. The Daily Beast got a sneak preview.
Rosica told The Daily Beast that Colbert’s interview shows that a modern Catholic is someone who is fundamentally with joy, with truth, and with a sense of history. “When we church people talk about Hollywood and the media, we often talk in disparaging terms,” he says. “But there are some outstanding people who are strong in faith. It gives us pause that we often write off people because of their fame.” In the interview, Colbert does poke fun at the church, invoking his favorite saints “Arugula” and “Grappa,” but Rosica says that’s OK. “If we love something we can make fun of it,” he says. “We need to see the divine sense of humor in some things.”
During the 45-minute interview, a white-bearded Colbert opened up about the difficulty performing, especially in character. “That sense of connection between the performer and the audience is the entire intention,” he said. “What does anybody want? Not to be alone, and I think when a performer gets onstage and says the things that are in his mind, in his own particular way, [it is] to make a connection with an audience so he doesn’t feel so alone.”
Colbert told Rosica that he hopes the audience feels the same way. “That’s got to be the goal, that connection has got to be the goal, and the making somebody laugh has got to be the goal,” he said. “You can’t think that your satire is going to change things.”
When Rosica asked him about making fun of the church, Colbert said he wouldn’t stop just because he has a bigger platform. “I mean I’ll still make jokes about the church, I’ll make jokes about anything… as long as you’re not being malicious, I don’t think you can leave anything off the table,” Colbert told Rosica, but he would stop short of making jokes about the sacraments. “It wouldn’t feel right for me, it wouldn’t feel good for me, it wouldn’t be obeying my own conscience, I suppose, to make jokes about the sacraments, or specifically the Eucharist… a nacho cheese Eucharist joke… not. I mean, the church is an important part of my life, I would be crazy if I didn’t make jokes about it.”
Colbert, who taught Catholic Catechism for several years, says he thinks there is a responsibility with devotion. When Rosica asked him about religious fanaticism and the Charlie Hebdo murders, Colbert said the Catholic Church was once that extreme. He also said he’s relieved he wasn’t doing a show when the Hebdo massacre took place. “There’s no sufficient response I could’ve thought of at that moment, and I felt very lucky not to be on-air at that time,“ said Colbert. “When a big story happens, I would think, ‘I wish I were on-air to talk about this,’ that one was like, ‘I’m so glad I’m not because I don’t have anything I think that approaches it.’”
But he said his second reaction to the murders was to look at his own faith. “If this were the 14th Century, Christians could have done this,” he said. “If the 15th-Century Christians might have been offended to the point of violence, at blaspheme. You know, check your history books. So, in an ultimate sense, I do not perceive that action is indicative of Islam… I’m not trying to make a moral equivalency between the Christianity of the Middle Ages and these people, who are doing this horror right now, but every religion has been so defensive of its beliefs that it has actually abandoned its beliefs at times.”
Colbert said that he hopes his connection to his faith helps him find his humor. “We know that I could do my show and make jokes about the church, and now sit with a priest and laugh about it, that’s a fairly modern behavior,” he said. “That’s not a hundred-year-old behavior, this is a modern behavior—this is, I hope, the right relationship to have with your faith, which is to love it, but not to exclude it from your intellect.”
When Rosica asked him about his view of the popular Pope Francis, Colbert said the pope’s assurance not to worry is “close to a commandment” and that it gave hope to people who had long abandoned their faith—that now Catholics are “given such hope by this pope, ‘Pope Hope,’ because that’s the church that I want,” said Colbert. “When he said in his—I think it was, was it the first sermon that he gave? After being made pope in that papal audience room, where he said, “‘I want this to be a… church for the poor’… that made me so excited!”
“I think, you know, one of the reasons why and listen, I’m a wealthy man, don’t get me wrong, but one of the reasons why we don’t help the poor, I think is that we think if we give it to them, we won’t have anything, you know, so again it’s fear that keeps you from experiencing the joy of helping other people,” he said. “So, I really like this pope because… I believe the church has always had a message of love.”
“Faith ultimately can’t be argued, faith has to be felt,” continued Colbert. “And hopefully you can still feel your faith fully, and let your mind have a logical life of its own, and they do not defy each other, but complement each other, because logic itself, I don’t think, for me, and you know—Aquinas might say differently—logic itself will not lead me to God. And, so, hopefully I can use my mind to make my jokes, and not deny my love for God at the same time.”
And when Rosica followed up by asking him what he would ask Pope Francis should the popular pontiff ever agree to sit in the Late Show chair for an interview, Colbert said that he would applaud this pope. “I would ask him about being a fool for Christ,” he said. “Because many of the things that the pope has said have been seen as, I think probably in some ways, by people outside of the church… as a sort of bomb-throwing, you know, but because the syntax, the dogma of the church, is often perceived of as the syntax of things, as opposed to be wholly, to be a fool, my blood approves, to be a fool for Christ is to love, because we are made we are here to dig our brief moment in time.”
“And I would ask him how he puts that first, because how do you get to where you are in the church and not to be consumed by the law, as opposed to the love that led to the law,” added Colbert. “I see that smile, on his face, and it’s inspirational. And the church is a flawed and human institution, for whom I always have hope. And I have no doubt that he’s far from a perfect man, but he gives me hope that the message of joy that he wants to spread right now can be seen as not revolutionary, but a manifestation of something that was always there.”