In the year 752, a priest named Stephen was elected pope, but died four days later -- before officially filling the chair of St. Peter in Rome.
For centuries Catholic records included him as Pope Stephen II -- until the Second Vatican Council. At that time, Pope Stephen III officially became Pope Stephen II (III) and the other later popes named Stephen received similarly strange titles.
So Pope Stephen III kind of vanished and that title became a kind of ecclesiastical inside joke, the kind that might appeal to cardinals and Jesuits. But what about a satirical superstar from Comedy Central?
Actually, this insider joke works if the comedian is named Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York delivers the punch line. The two faced off before 3,000 students and faculty at Fordham University in a Sept. 14 program focusing on "Humor, Joy and the Spiritual Life." The event was arranged by Rev. James Martin, author of the book Between Heaven and Mirth and for legions of fans the "Official Chaplain of the Colbert Nation."
The jocularity started early as Dolan -- who is used to having Catholics kiss his ring -- lunged to kiss Colbert's hand, first. Then, when Martin said the cardinal might become pope in a future conclave, Dolan responded, "If I am elected pope -- which is probably the greatest gag all evening -- I'll be Stephen III."
Colbert piled on: "Write that down! I want that notarized!"
Fordham officials disappointed YouTube fans by, at the last minute, declaring this much-anticipated summit a media-free zone. Still, a few journalists -- starting with a New York Times scribe -- slipped in as guests. Also, it's impossible to keep one-liners locked inside a hall packed with college students and Twitter-friendly smartphones.
Some of the exchanges shared via hashtag Dolbert and DolanColbert included:
-- Colbert, who teaches Sunday school at his New Jersey parish, stressed that he never jokes about the sacraments. Instead, he skewers people he believes use and abuse faith, especially in politics. "Then I'm not talking about Christ. I'm talking about Christ as cudgel," he said.
-- At one point, Dolan introduced Evelyn Colbert, the comedian's wife, and kissed her cheek. "I can kiss your wife," he quipped. "You can't kiss mine."
-- Jabbing the cardinal about recent changes in the Mass, Colbert noted one bumpy Nicene Creed edit: "Consubstantial! It's the creed! It's not the SAT prep."
-- A student, via social media, asked: "I am considering the priesthood. Would it be prudent to avoid dating?" The cardinal said dating was a good idea, adding, "By the way, let me give you the phone numbers of my nieces." Colbert responded: "It's actually a great pickup line: 'I'm seriously considering the priesthood. You can change my mind.' "
-- Concerning his own struggles as a believer, Colbert said: "Are there flaws in the church? Absolutely. But is there great beauty in the church? Absolutely." And also, "The real reason I remain a Catholic is what the church gives me -- which is love."
-- Dolan to Colbert: "Do you feel pressure to be funny all the time?" Colbert back to Dolan: "Do you feel pressure to be holy all the time?"
The bottom line, noted Martin, is that humor has always been part of religious life, including the lives of the saints. Take, for example, that famous prayer from the young St. Augustine: "Lord, give me chastity ... but not yet."
In remarks later posted online, the Jesuit noted: "Humor serves serious purposes in the spiritual life. Joyful humor can evangelize, and draw people to God. Self-deprecating humor reminds us of our own humility. Provocative humor can also gently speak truth to power."
In his own theological reflections, the cardinal argued that the roots of Christian humor can be found in the darkest hours of Good Friday, when it appeared that Jesus had been "bullied to death by undiluted evil; love, jackbooted by hate; mercy incarnate, smothered by revenge; life itself, crushed by death."
But he who laughs last, stressed Dolan, laughs best.
"Lord knows there are plenty of Good Fridays in our lives. But they will not prevail. Easter will," he wrote, in his script. "As we Irish claim, 'Life is all about loving, living and laughing, not about hating, dying and moaning.' ... That's why we say, 'Joy is the infallible sign of God's presence.'"
(Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.)