ROME – In Umberto Eco’s immortal novel The Name of the Rose, the stern Benedictine abbot Jorge de Burgo insists that laughter is evil: “Laughter kills fear,” he declares, “and without fear there can be no faith, because without fear of the Devil there is no more need of God.”

In response, the novel’s hero, the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, argues that even the saints used comedy, pointing to St, Maurice, who, while being boiled to death by a Muslim sultan, complained that his bath was too cold, whereupon the sultan dipped his hand into the water and was scalded.

On Friday, another type of Franciscan – this one a pope named Francis – settled that debate, delivering a ringing endorsement of humor by hosting more than a hundred comedians at the Vatican, in an experience most described as delightful if also a bit “bizarre.”

When asked about the significance of inviting comedians to the Vatican, actress and comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, famous for her roles on Seinfeld, Veep, and Saturday Night Live, told reporters, “I don’t know, I found the whole thing so bizarre.”

However, she described Friday’s meeting with Pope Francis as “a wonderful experience,” calling the pope “a lovely” man who is “obviously doing the best he can, and I appreciate that.”

Similarly, Catholic comedian Jim Gaffigan also described the fact comedians were invited to meet the pope “bizarre.”

“It was all comedians, so it was like a meeting of every poorly behaved kid from church, and they stuck them all in a room and they thought it would be a good idea,” he said, saying, “everyone had ants in their pants. Everyone was excited. Then, it was like, there are a bunch of funny people in a room, so you know, it was like ADHD cranked up.”

American television host, comedian and producer Conan O’Brien said he was also perplexed at why comedians had been invited, saying, “Most of my career has been me saying, why am I here?”

“It happens again and again and again, when I’m at the White House, any time I’m in one of these situations, it’s always the same thing. I say, why am I here? I don’t belong. I think that’s how a lot of us felt,” he said.

Raised in an Irish Catholic family, O’Brien, best known for having hosted late-night talk shows such as Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien on NBC, said many of his fellow comedians present have been friends for years.

In total, 107 comedians and humorists attended Friday’s meeting with the pope, organized by the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education, along with some of their family and friends. Pope Francis greeted each person individually after giving his speech.

Other than O’Brien, other Americans who attended the meeting were famed television and comedic personalities Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Jimmy Fallon, Jim Gaffigan, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tig Notaro, Mike Birbiglia, Kathleen Madigan, and David Sedaris.

Goldberg told journalists afterward that the meeting with the pope “was great,” and, when asked whether she’d convinced the pope to make a cameo in Sister Act 3, currently in production, she joked, “I didn’t think it was the right place to bring it up, but I’ll probably send an email.”

O’Brien in his comments to the press jested, saying that during the meeting, “we’re all looking at one another thinking, something’s wrong! We’re in this beautiful, beautiful space in the Vatican, and for some reason they let comedians in, which is always a mistake, always a mistake!”

Pope Francis in his prepared remarks noted that his audience consisted of “the most loved, sought after, and popular” television and comedic personalities from around the world, saying this is not only because they are good at what they do, but also “you have and cultivate the gift of making people laugh.”

“In the midst of so much gloomy news, immersed as we are in many social and even personal emergencies, you have the power to spread peace and smiles. You are among the few who have the ability to speak to all types of people, from different generations and cultural backgrounds,” he said.

He said comedians have the ability to unite people, “because laughter is contagious,” and that “It is easier to laugh together than alone.”

“Joy opens us to sharing and is the best antidote to selfishness and individualism. Laughter also helps to break down social barriers, create connections among people, and allows us to express emotions and thoughts, contributing to building a shared culture and creating spaces of freedom,” he said.

Calling their talent a gift, Pope Francis said the humor they provide helps to spread peace and overcome difficulties and daily stress, while helping people endure problems both big and small with a smile.

“You denounce abuses of power; you give voice to forgotten situations; you highlight abuses; you point out inappropriate behavior,” he said, lauding their ability to do this “without spreading alarm or terror, anxiety or fear, as other types of communication tend to do.”

Quoting a scripture passage from the Book of Proverbs about God delighting in mankind, he said, “Remember this: when you manage to draw knowing smiles from the lips of even one spectator, you also make God smile.”

Francis also pointed to the fine line between poking fun and being offensive, saying true humor “does not offend, humiliate, or put people down according to their flaws.”

“How much we need to learn from you!” he said, saying, “The laughter of humor is never ‘against’ anyone, but is always inclusive, purposeful, eliciting openness, sympathy, empathy.”

The pope said it is also possible to “laugh at God,” saying, “this is not blasphemy” but involves teasing God “just as we play and joke with the people we love.”

“It is possible to do this without offending the religious sentiments of believers, especially the poor,” he said, and urged comedians to “Continue to cheer people up, especially those who have the hardest time looking at life with hope.”

After the meeting, as the comedians worked the rope of reporters waiting to speak with them, Louis-Dreyfus described the pope as “a wonderful man. It’s quite evident; a wonderful, kind, smiling face.”

She said she was also moved by his remarks, saying, “I thought his comments were beautiful, actually. I was delighted to be here,” and that while she’s been to the Vatican before as a tourist, “to be here under these circumstances is quite remarkable.”

Louis-Dreyfus said she thought the pope was funny and believes the audience with him “gives weight to the power of comedy.”

Describing his brief handshake with Pope Francis after the speech, comedian, television host, actor and political commentator Stephen Colbert, who is Catholic, said he spoke to the pope in broken Italian, telling the pontiff that he had done the English reading of the audiobook of his memoir, “Life.”

“I got the craziest call from my manager, he goes, ‘baby, I hope you’re sitting down, because you’re not going to believe who just called! I got a call from the Vatican saying, would you be the person to read the pope’s audio book in English?’”

Colbert, famous for hosting the satirical Comedy Central program The Colbert Report and for his CBS talk program The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, said he worked on the project over Christmas, saying, “it was great,” and that he got to know a lot about Pope Francis by reading his memoir.

“I’d love to interview him, but I really want to do a cooking segment with him, because he talks a lot about cooking. Evidentially he makes a great tortellini in brodo,” he said.

Asked why he thought comedians had been invited, Colbert said, “I still don’t know why comedians are here at the Vatican today,” but “I’m very grateful that we are.”

Also attending Friday’s meeting with Pope Francis was American Jesuit Father James Martin, who authored the 2012 book, “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”

Martin, known for his LGBTQ+ outreach, is widely considered the de facto chaplain of Colbert’s The Colbert Report and he is also editor at large of the Jesuit-run America Magazine, where Gaffigan’s wife, Jeannie Gaffigan, contributes as a columnist.

He is credited with having organized the American presence at Friday’s meeting between Pope Francis and comedians.

Speaking to reporters after Friday’s audience, Gaffigan said he and Colbert were approached by organizers and asked to come up with a list of names of other comedians who might be willing to participate.

“They were like, we don’t want anyone to do material, and we were like, uh, then you can’t invite any comedian!” Gaffigan said, saying they tried to approach people they thought would be respectful.

“Comedians are a very, they’re silly but they’re also very sincere…and you know, they’ve got a healthy ego, so it’s like, the pope wants to meet me, why not? It was cool,” he said.

Gaffigan, who performed at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which Pope Francis attended, described the pope as “very approachable,” and spoke about what it is like being a Catholic comedian.

“I think it’s the most punk-rock thing you can do, is be a comedian that even admits they believe in God, and then to be Catholic, you’re like asking for trouble,” he said.

He acknowledged the diverse background of attendees, noting that some belong to different faiths, while others identify as atheist or agnostic, but said that regardless of their differences, “it was universal, there is this warmth, this openness, even with the exceeding amount of problems that have existed and will exist. It was amazing.”

Asked whether going to church affected his comedy, Gaffigan said much of the Christian faith “is so universal,” and that even non-believers are familiar with figures such as Moses, Abraham, and the Apostles.

“It can be a unifying thing in that even someone who is agnostic or an atheist can embrace the comic idea,” he said, noting that his own religious material “is not making fun of God, or making fun of people that are of a certain belief, it’s making fun of humans.”

“Sometimes I’ll see a clip and it’s like an atheist organization that’s using my material and I’m like, alright, that’s an interesting take! So, it’s just like human stupidity that’s behind most of my material,” he said.

O’Brien in recounting his own brief encounter with Pope Francis described the pontiff as “a really kind man,” jesting that “he sat down in a beautiful chair, I want a chair just like that, it’s the chair I deserve.”

He said his handshake with the pope passed quickly, “it’s not like Santa Claus, when you sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas. You can’t do that. I thought it was, I was about to sit and say, I want a sled for Christmas! I want a basketball! And they said no, so it was quick.”

“It was a wonderful experience to be in the Vatican and see this, it was quite extraordinary…You Italians are doing something right, this is amazing,” he said.

Asked whether he would jest about the pope in future routines after having met the pontiff, O’Brien said, “I’ll have to think about that. I think the pope has a good sense of humor, so we’ll see what happens.”

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