Interview by Kevin T. DiCamillo
Q: Why did God make you?
A: God made me to know, love and serve him in this world so that I may be happy with him in the next. (from The Baltimore Catechism)
It’s not every day that a General Electric finance executive with a Wharton degree finds God, leaves the world of bilk and money, becomes a member of the Society of Jesus (“The Jesuits”), and winds ups becoming a best-selling author, as well as the Chaplain of “The Colbert Report.”
But it happened to James Martin. Make that Reverend Father James Martin, SJ — who eschews all other titles save “Jim,” or “Father Jim,” if you push him.
I had the pleasure of editing Jim’s 2006 book Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints for HiddenSpring, and spoke with him earlier this year about publishing both a magazine and his own books, the new Jesuit Pope Francis, his success as an author, and, of course, God.
Jim, who is editor-at-large for America Magazine, the Jesuit Catholic weekly (and the most-widely disseminated Catholic weekly in the U.S.), has authored numerous books including the best-selling My Life with the Saints (Loyola, 2007), and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Anything (HarperOne 2011) and Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperOne, 2012). His latest (and largest) book Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne), is set for publication this March.
It may be a facile comparison, and one that Jim laughs off, but it is hard not to compare Fr. Martin with Thomas Merton—the famous convert to Catholicism who became a Trappist Monk and best-selling author and who was (and is) a spiritual father to several generations of Catholics in particular and Christians in general.
But Jim has made Merton’s spirituality his own, in a sense, so as to share it with a new readership: “What I try to do is take Merton’s ideas and make them, perhaps, a bit more ‘down-to-earth’—I try to write for the person I was at age 27 or 28—an age when I had very little ‘spirituality’.”
And unlike Thomas Merton, who was rejected by the Franciscans (for having fathered a child out of wedlock) before becoming a Trappist monk, Jim didn’t do much “shopping-around” when it came to joining a religious order: “I did very very little research before entering the religious life. I was working at GE after graduating from the Wharton School, and it wasn’t until I saw a TV documentary on Thomas Merton that I started thinking of joining a religious order, and a local parish priest pointed me to the Jesuits. And I looked only at the Jesuits and possibly becoming a diocesan priest. I never looked into any other religious order—and I was shocked when I entered the Novitiate and all these other Jesuits-to-be had spent months—if not years–checking out various religious orders!”
A 21st Century Religious Life
And while Merton was a cloistered priest, Jim is very much in the world: he has worked in Jesuit missions in Nairobi, the Caribbean, as well as with the homeless in Boston, street gangs in Chicago and with inmates in a Boston prison. His current position at America Magazine also keeps him busy since, as he puts it, “America provides a service that pretty much no other magazine does…and we are a niche magazine which is a bit ‘safer’ from the forces [that have taken down Newsweek, US News, Life] that have so hurt general-interest magazines. We are aggressively branching out into a number of different platforms that will take us into people’s homes—and so far, so good!”
Unlike Merton’s monastic cell in the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, Jim’s office is in America’s eponymous midtown headquarters, a nine-storey building that has been described as “a dumpy potato-sack amidst rich neighbors” (like the Le Parker Meridien Hotel), where about twenty Jesuits live and work. While some work with the magazine, others teach at Jesuit high schools or at Fordham University, while some work in the provincial offices, or are involved in parish ministry.
“America House is a very exciting place to be, as it contains the offices of America Magazine and Press — all the digital stuff we do — plus we have our Chapel, common space, refectory [dining room] where we’ve had sorts of guests. Everyone from Karl Rahner to Cardinal Dolan has been welcomed here.”
And while Merton got by with pen and ink, Jim notes that America offers “podcasts, a blog, a twitter feed, a Facebook page, email blasts and takes advantage of as much of the new media as possible”
While the Jesuits are the largest religious order in the Roman Catholic Church, they are also perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented. Now that one of their own is Pope, Jim hopes that some common misconceptions will be dispelled. “There’s a wrong idea that Jesuits are somehow the ‘loyal opposition to the Church’, which is just false. Jesuits are one with Church, are part of the Church and support the Church….though it is true that at times we been ‘loving critics of the Church’.”
“There’s also a popular idea that every Jesuit has at least five PhDs and we are all fluent in Latin and Greek, or that we are all super-genius intellectuals who teach only teach in universities: this simply isn’t the case.”
Perspectives on Pope Francis
One Jesuit who IS a super-genius and a polyglot intellectual is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known to the world now as Pope Francis. As the first Jesuit ever elected pope (Jesuits for centuries have shied away from any placement in the hierarchy of the Church—out of humility), Jim could not help but share his enthusiasm for the Argentine Pontiff and recently crowned “Time Magazine Person of the Year. He remembers when he first heard the words “Habemus Papem!” (Latin: “We Have A Pope!”):
“My gut reaction? Stunned at first, then elated that one of our own was chosen. I think I most surprised by the fact that he is 76, and the conventional wisdom was that the new pope would be much younger.”
I mentioned that Francis’ predecessor, the scholar-pope Benedict XVI had gotten rid of the Papal Tiara on all official documents and abolished his title of “Patriarch of the West,” and asked Jim if he saw Francis doing more along those lines: “Yes, definitely! Early in his papacy Francis, made some bold moves in stripping-away the ‘glamour’ of the papacy and began to interact with people in a simpler way”
An example? “Francis has decided not to live in the Apostolic Palace, preferring to reside in a two-room suite the Vatican Guest House. Also he preferred to wear simple vestments for his inauguration Mass.”
Further, Pope Francis “washed the feet of juvenile detainees in a detention center in Rome on Holy Thursday rather than celebrating a grander Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica.”
Thus, Francis is teaching us not only “by word, but by deed—which is how Jesus taught”.
Jim sees in Pope Francis “a wonderful blend of spiritualities: the Jesuit spirituality, with its emphasis on discernment and learning and finding God in all things; and the Franciscan spirituality, with its emphasis on poverty, joy and the environment. This is a terrific combination to bring to the office of the Papacy.”
One act of mercy that Jim found particularly moving: “During one of his appearances in St. Peter’s Square the Pope stopped his motorcade to embrace a severely disabled man—a photo of that brought tears to the eyes of so many people—including my Jewish dentist and dental assistant when I showed it to them! Francis not only talks the talk, but literally walks the walk– and always has ever since he became a Jesuit.”
And in addition to being a priest, scholar and Jesuit, the new pope is also, of course, a best-selling author, just like Jim!
Writing for the Religious vs. General Trade
Jim’s own work as an author breaks down roughly into two phases: the books for the religious trade (published with Loyola, Liguori, Sheed & Ward, Orbis, HiddenSpring) and, since 2010, for the general trade with HarperOne. Acting as an auto-exegete, he says “The dichotomy of my books are, in the beginning, focused more on the Catholic market, and, lately, focused on the general market. If there is any demarcation, it is the time between the Catholic publishers and HarperOne—which means I have to write… a little differently…”
“But the purpose of all my books is the purpose of all Jesuit work, namely to ‘help souls.’ The Jesuits were founded not to be the ‘Shock-Troops’ of the Counter-Reformation—nor to found a lot of colleges with good basketball teams!—but to do something simpler: help souls, which is the phrase that appears more frequently in the early documents of the Society of Jesus than almost any other. All my books are meant to bring people closer to God, so in a sense they are all part of the same desire of mine.”
Celebrity as Ministry
Due to his relative high-profile as a priest who is also somewhat of a celebrity (and, significantly, not a high-ranking church official), Jim is confronted with many misconceptions about his own spiritual life: “Some people think that I am always happy and light-hearted and jumping for joy. People sometimes say to me—after seeing me on The Colbert Report—‘Wow! It must be great to be happy all the time!’ and I have to say, ‘No, I get sad, discouraged and frustrated like everybody else.’”
“The other misconception is that my prayer-life is always wonderful and rich and fulfilling—which is a general misconception of all people in religious orders. Sometimes my prayer is very dry, like everybody else’s [cf. Mother Theresa of Calcutta and St. John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul]. Someone actually said to me once, ‘It must be really nice to never have any doubts’!”
So how does a fisher-of-people and helper-of-souls deal with people who are seemingly so far removed from the reality of the spiritual quest? “Well, part of being a good minister is meeting people where they are. But that said, what I often say to people is to look for God in your life as it already is: in your family, in your work– in addition to looking for God in prayer and scripture and church. And another part of it is trying to see where God was in their past, which helps them find him in the present.”
For a writer who has spent much ink on laughter—his Between Heaven and Mirth is the culmination of this theology of joy, humor and laughter—Jim is quick to point out that “There’s a difference between joy and happiness. ‘Joy’ is grounded in a relationship with God, whereas ‘happiness’ is more fleeting. The refugees and the infirm that I’ve worked with and ministered to have taught me about the joy of resiliency. Grounding your life in a relationship with God, which leads to joy (at least ultimately). It’s a kind of an emphasis on the relationship more than on the events of your life.”
Social Media as Ministry
Part of Jim’s ministry is expressed frequently in social media. When I asked him if he used a service like HootSuite he immediately jumped in: “No! The only service I use is me! I enjoy pointing people to different resources on the web, and writing Gospel meditations. I tweet a homily every morning: I see that as a way of directing people to great resources. I tweet and Facebook when I can—usually three or four times day—I enjoy it, actually. I see it as a type of ministry, since I hope it attracts seekers or those who are estranged from the church who can look at my Facebook page or Twitter-feed and be pointed to things that they might not know much about, but might help their spiritual life. And here at America House we are a sort of clearing-house for ideas and articles and essays and news-events that others might not know about, so its actually easier for me to keep in touch with all that—and spread the word.”
One of Jim’s tweets that drew particular interest was: “I WOULDN’T LET #LANCE ARMSTRONG OUT OF THE CONFESSIONAL WITHOUT AN EXPRESSION OF REAL CONTRITION: EMBARRASSMENT IS NOT THE SAME AS REMORSE,” a subject he later expanded on in The Washington Post. He spoke about America’s obsession with apologies and confession: “I think this fetish in America of public confession is an expression of our Calvinist past, which demands a sort of public scolding, as well as our individualistic heritage which says that everyone is a self-made person and that you can re-make yourself as well—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that ‘There are no second-acts in American Life’ is completely false today. Confession and making amends are healthy. On the other hand, I wonder how many people who go on TV to confess are just doing it for career moves and to rehabilitate their marketable image. And it seems that the American public has a great tolerance for bad behavior and within a few years everyone and everything seems to be forgive, which negates the need for real penance.”
Quoting Gore Vidal, Jim said that “perhaps we really have become the ‘United States of Amnesia.’” Or in the words of poet Geoffrey Hill: “America: A country of so many memorials…but no memory.”
An Enhanced Ebook to Aid Prayer
“Books speak of other books” saith Umberto Eco, and I was reminded by a friend to ask Jim about the Catholic Church being rooted in sacred books: The Bible, The Catechism, The Missal, The Breviary, The Code of Canon Law, the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, as well as the innumerable bulls, decretals, and encyclicals from the popes. It is important, obviously, that Catholics read and know these books, so as to be well-informed concerning their faith. But Jim quickly drew a distinction, that “I would say that the Catholic Faith is based on a person—not on a book—our faith is based on Jesus: we don’t find our faith lying in a book on a coffee table, we find it in a relationship with Jesus. Our faith is a melding of scripture and tradition—those are the ‘Twin Towers’ of Catholic Belief.”
He continued, “When you have well-educated Catholics (via their reading) they contribute more and in a better way to the Church — and to Society in general.”
Sometimes, you have to reach the readers where they are, and sometimes that means the digital space: “For example, the enhanced ebooks, Together on Retreat: Meeting Jesus in Prayer is a way to invite people to go on a journey in prayer with the New Testament using the latest publishing technology. So it teaches people ways to pray by using scripture passages: inviting them into the scripture and encouraging them to become part of scripture, as St. Ignatius of Loyola taught us.”
Confronting the Difficult Questions
Thomas Merton, while in hospital, fell hopelessly head-over-heels in love with his nurse. This, of course, presented a problem for a celibate monk. However, after much prayer, discernment, and self-denial, Merton remained true to his monastic vows and returned to the Abbey. Jim, like all priests, has the difficult and delicate task of defending and explaining the Church’s often unpopular and misunderstood teachings on all aspects of sexuality. He explained how he fields these thorny queries from people struggling to understand: “First, I listen to people to see not only where they are now, but what their experiences have been, what their experiences of God are—that’s the most important thing—because God is always active in our lives, even if we can’t see it. Second, if they are struggling with questions of sexuality—the most important person to me (and them) is Jesus. And to see how the Gospels show us how he dealt with people’s struggles in their real lives. Finally, it is important to meditate on the Church’s tradition, and to try to understand it and inform your conscience.”
Jim reiterated: “But the most important thing to me is, again, Jesus, for all your problems, my problems—that doesn’t mean that you can open up a Bible, plunk your finger down and find your answer to your particular question– but to understand his ministry of compassion and welcome and forgiveness and hospitality—that’s where to start. There is a lot of misunderstanding on this topic of sexuality, but the most important thing here is love and that is what you get when you meet Jesus.”
“So,” I said, sort of at a loss, “in the beginning was love?”
Laughter as a Path to God
Jim loves to laugh and I asked if he could end with a joke. He shared this gem:
“A Jesuit, a Franciscan, and a Domincan are all on retreat together and they find themselves mystically transported to the first Christmas Night—that is, the birth of Christ Himself in the manger in Bethlehem. The Franciscan says to the Infant Jesus, ‘How wonderful that God has chosen the poor to remind us of our need to care for the poor in the midst of creation—note all these farm animals—and to remind us of the importance of the environment! The Dominican says to Mary, “Oh the joy of seeing how the Word has become Flesh! How the preexisting Logos has inserted himself into this time in history and has become human: the revelation has become the revealer!’
And the Jesuit says to Saint Joseph: “Have you ever thought about a Jesuit High School for this kid?”