comedy

From John Henry Newman to Stephen Colbert: Ancient truths on suffering and death

While it's hard to journey from the intellectual legacy of the Blessed John Henry Newman to the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it can be done.

This is a story worth hearing for those truly interested in centuries of Christian teachings about pain, suffering and loss, according to the social-media maven poised to become an auxiliary bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

 "God's providence is a mysterious and wonderful thing," noted Bishop-elect Robert Barron, founder of Word of Fire ministries. "One of the most potent insights of the spiritual masters is that our lives are not about us, that they are, in fact, ingredient in God's providential purposes, part of a story that stretches infinitely beyond what we can immediately grasp."

 Thus, a story that ends with Colbert begins with Newman and the 19th Century Church of England. Newman's interest in ancient doctrines and worship led the famous scholar-priest into Roman Catholicism. Called a traitor by many Anglicans, Newman started over -- creating a humble oratory in industrial Birmingham. Eventually he became a cardinal and, today, many consider him a saint.

The next connection, noted Barron, writing online, was the Rev. Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest in that Birmingham oratory who shepherded two orphaned brothers after their mother died in 1904. Her family had disowned her when she became a Catholic.

One of the brothers was J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote "The Lord of the Rings." As an adult, the Oxford don wrote a letter in which he addressed pain and suffering. A key point in the letter directly links this story to Colbert, an outspoken Catholic who is one of the most outrageous, controversial figures in American popular culture.

The comedian -- youngest of 11 children in a devout Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. -- has frequently discussed the deaths of his father, a former Yale Medical School dean, and two of his brothers in a 1974 plane crash. But Barron noted that, in a wrenching new GQ interview, Colbert dug much deeper than before.

During his work with Chicago's Second City troupe, Colbert was taught to risk failure, to push comedy to the point of transforming pain. A mentor told him: "You gotta learn to love the bomb."

Ultimately, Colbert learned to link that concept to the 1974 crash.