As world leaders gather in Italy for a summit addressing entrenched global crises, Pope Francis hosted an international gathering of a different sort on Friday to broadcast his own message – of the importance of humour.

The leader of the Catholic Church hosted the equivalent of a conclave of comedians in the Vatican by inviting Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Fallon, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, Conan O'Brien and others to the Vatican.

Over 200 people were in the audience at the Apostolic Palace, with more than 100 comedians from 15 countries. Goldberg and Louis-Dreyfus were visible in the front row.

Before proceedings got underway Fallon was seen larking around at the front of the audience hall, before quickly being told to get to his seat as the pope was about to walk through the door.

“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,” the pontiff told the gathering.

“You unite people, because laughter is contagious,” he said, adding that he has prayed for 40 years for a good sense of humour, adding his own joke and the end, where he asked the audience to “I ask you to please pray for me: for, with a smile, not against!” – and was obliged with laughter from the crowd.

“You manage to make people smile even while dealing with problems and events, large and small. You denounce abuses of power; you give voice to forgotten situations; you highlight abuses; you point out inappropriate behaviour,” Pope Francis added.

The 87-year-old pontiff said that humour can overcome “social barriers” and help create “connections among people.”

“While communication today often generates conflict, you know how to bring together diverse and sometimes contrary realities. How much we need to learn from you!” the Pope said.

Pope Francis also said it was okay to “laugh at God” in the same way “we play and joke with the people we love.”

After delivering his speech, Francis greeted all the comedians individually, sharing a laugh and joke with several of them, including Rock, Fallon and Colbert, as he left the audience hall.

Whoopi Goldberg and Pope Francis

“It was great,” Whoopi Goldberg told reporters. When asked if she had again asked the pope if he would appear in “Sister Act 3,” she said: “I didn't think it was the right place to bring it up, but I'll probably send an email.” 

Conan O'Brien said afterwards: “We are all looking at each other thinking 'something's wrong'. We are in this beautiful, beautiful space in the Vatican and for some reason they've let comedians in which is always a mistake.” 

A papal outreach

The Pope hosted the comedians as leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) democratic advanced economies gather for a three-day summit in southern Italy, where they face thorny global issues including how to continue to support Ukraine nearly two and half years into Russia's invasion.

The Pope is expected to become the first leader of the Catholic church to participate in the G7 summit later Friday, when he is slated to take part in a session dedicated to AI. US President Joe Biden, a Catholic who has a warm relationship with Francis, is among the leaders expected to be present at the gathering.

Francis' meeting on Friday with “artists from the world of humour” is part of his latest attempt to engage with contemporary culture, with the Vatican explaining in a statement that the meeting underlines how the “art of comedy can contribute to a more empathetic and supportive world.” 

It follows on from his landmark visit to the Venice Biennale and his meeting last year with artists and directors in the Vatican. The meeting also comes with the pope facing question marks over his outreach to LGBTQ+ Catholics after reportedly using a homophobic slur at private meetings.

Others from the U.S. contingent included Tig Notaro, Jim Gaffigan with several Catholics among them: both Gaffigan and Colbert identify as Catholics while Fallon and O'Brien were both raised in the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis meets famous comedians