Aside from cardinals and bishops, there are few American priests who are currently household names (at least in Catholic households). Among these, James Martin, a Jesuit and former executive at General Electric, is right up there with Father Jonathan Morris and Father Paul Scalia: American priest/authors who have a following.
Father Martin, who is an editor at large at America magazine, is also a novelist. His first work of fiction, The Abbey: A Story of Discovery (HarperOne, 2015) came out in time for Christmas last year.
“I never thought that I’d write a novel,” Father Martin says, “because I could never imagine how one would actually begin. But then I had a very vivid dream that gave me the basis of the story, and at first I thought it would just be a short story. So I started writing and kept on writing, but didn’t tell my editors until I was finished.”
When asked why the book was set in a monastery, Father Martin mused, “I think monasteries are something ‘exotic’ to many people who may misunderstand what goes on there. A lot of people think that all that monks and cloistered religious men and women do is pray all day in complete silence.” (This is, of course, false.) “There is a tremendous amount of work that goes on in abbeys and monasteries.”
A notoriously prolific writer, Father Martin — who has authored or edited at least a dozen books — prefers to be known as “a Jesuit who happens to write books,” rather than a “Jesuit author.” He is also the author of Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus (HarperOne, 2016), which debuted in time for this past Lent.
“I was invited by Timothy Cardinal Dolan to preach about the last words of Jesus [in 2015]. These words of Jesus are invitations to understand Jesus’ humanity — because he experienced, and therefore understands, our humanity. That talk became the basis of my new book.”
When asked to expand on the Seven Last Words — which are really the seven final sayings of Jesus — Father Martin focused specifically on Jesus’ cry from the cross: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabbacthani.”
“This is, for me, a real expression of his feeling of distance from the Father. One of the interesting things is that earlier, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays to the Father and uses the familiar term ‘Abba’ [roughly translated as ‘Dad’], but when he’s on the cross, he uses the more formal address of ‘Eloi’ or ‘Eli’ — ‘My God.’” Father Martin went on to explain, “The shift from the familiar ‘Abba’ language in the garden to the more formal cry from the cross is another indication of that Jesus experienced a feeling of distance from the Father, and a reminder that he can enter in our lives because he suffered.”
Father Martin agreed that, “Yes, [Jesus] is indeed quoting the 22nd Psalm, but in its totality? Because in its totality, Psalm 22 is ultimately a prayer of thanksgiving.” He wondered: “Or did Jesus really feel abandoned by God? If we accept the ‘Abba’ language of closeness with God, perhaps we have to accept the ‘Eli’ or ‘Eloi’ language of distance as well. And this shows us, again, Jesus’ humanity.”
This is important because, as Father Martin was quick to point out, “We naturally trust people who have gone through the same pain we ourselves suffer. If you have cancer, for instance, you’re going to listen to someone who has been through that disease more attentively.” Thus, “We can trust Jesus because he really suffered on the cross — not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.”
Father Martin summed this up by saying, “Because Jesus experienced all the things that we do, except for sin, he understands you. Overall, he understands us in the most complete way possible. Jesus suffered physically, emotionally, even spiritually, and when we are in pain we are praying to someone who experienced pain in body and soul. That can help people feel closer to him.”
Lest one think that Father Martin spends his life as a sort of desk-jockey, pounding out best sellers and helping edit America magazine, the Society of Jesus keeps him busy first and foremost as a priest. This Lent (which begins March 1), he’ll be the guide on a Holy Land pilgrimage Feb. 24 to March 5. Father Martin also has been to Lourdes, France, “with the Order of Malta on several occasions.” This is recounted in his book, Lourdes Diary: Seven Days at the Grotto of Massabieille (Loyola Press, 2006).
Father Martin also leads the active prayer life expected of a priest.
“I spend my mornings with the Scripture readings for the Mass of the day and some Ignatian contemplation. In the early evening we have Mass in our Jesuit community, and I end my day with the Examen. Of course,” he added, “I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, too.” His Scripture reflections can often be found in Give Us This Day (issued monthly from the Liturgical Press).
Regarding his work at the largest-circulated Catholic weekly, America, Father Martin noted, “The media work we do at America is only a part of my ministry. Everything I do is in service to the Gospel: It is all a ministry of the Word (books, articles, and essays) and proclaiming the Gospel through various media.”
In addition to a Facebook and Twitter presence that many secular celebrities would covet, Father Martin was the “official chaplain” on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert’s comedy news show on Comedy Central. “No form of media should be beneath us when proclaiming the Gospel,” Father Martin said. “Jesus used the medium of the parable; St. Paul preferred letters. St. Augustine wrote the first autobiography. St. John Paul II used TV, and single-handedly invented World Youth Day.” Father Martin’s point is that “Jesus spoke to people in words that they could understand and in the media that they could understand, too.”
This brought us to the topic of an entirely new medium: the in-flight papal conference. Father Martin said, “We don’t know how to interpret it yet. We need to understand it in terms of levels of Church teaching: First there are the Gospels, and then De Fide Statements of the faith, and the hierarchy of the truths the Catholic Church teaches.” He said what Pope Francis is doing on these in-flight interviews “is very informal, and very new. And refreshing.” But he added, “It can be confusing precisely because it is anew.”
As a fellow Jesuit, Father Martin is naturally a huge fan of Pope Francis.
“I am a great admirer of Pope Francis! I think that he is doing a great job of proclaiming the Gospel.” But Father Martin is quick to note, “I also loved Pope Emeritus Benedict’s writings, especially Jesus of Nazareth and Deus Caritas Est.” In fact, Father Martin went on to say that, “Pope Benedict, in resigning his office, performed one of the greatest acts of humility in Church history. To think that he would voluntarily resign from the papacy is still astonishing to me. It reminded me that Jesus’ greatest act may have been to die on the cross for us — rather than his miracles.”
Father Martin, who wrote a book called Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperOne, 2011), loves a good joke too.
“Pope Francis comes to New York to address the United Nations and is picked up by a limousine. En route from the airport to the U.N., his driver becomes ill. ‘I’ll take you to the hospital; get in the back seat,’ the pope says. However, while speeding to the emergency room the pope is pulled over by the NYPD. The police officer, upon seeing the pope behind the wheel, radios into police headquarters. ‘I’ve pulled over a very important person,’ the officer says. ‘Who is it? The mayor?’ responds the chief of police. ‘No, bigger than the mayor,’ says the officer. ‘Is it the governor?’ asks the chief. ‘No, bigger than the governor,’ says the officer. ‘It’s not the president?’ inquires the chief. ‘No, bigger even than the president,’ comes the reply from the officer. ‘But who’s bigger than the president?’ the exasperated chief of police asks in disbelief. ‘I don’t know,’ says the police officer, ‘but the pope is his driver.’”