Recently, Jesuit Father James Martin, Orbis book author (Essential Writings and This Our Exile), editor-at-large of America magazine and consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication, shared his thoughts on prayer, forgiveness and more with our senior marketing technologist, Adam Mitchell.
Father Martin, please tell us about yourself and how you became a Jesuit priest.
Well, I grew up in a town outside of Philadelphia called Plymouth Meeting, in a family that was fairly lukewarm about religion. We went to Mass most Sundays and Christmas and Easter. I had first Holy Communion and was confirmed, but then my religious education stopped.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, got a degree in finance, and then took a job at General Electric in New York. I was making a lot of money, and the job was exciting, but gradually I started to feel like I was in the wrong place.
One night, I turned on the TV and saw a documentary about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. That really called to me—his way of life in a monastery. So I read his book The Seven Storey Mountain, and I started to think that his way of life would be better than what I was doing. So I went to my local priest in Connecticut, where I was living at the time, and said, “I think I’d like to be a priest.”
He said, “You might talk to the Jesuits up the street at Fairfield University.” So I went up there and got a brochure, and started reading more and more about them.
Because I was so stressed out from work, I started seeing a therapist. One day, the therapist said, “Why are you at work?” I said, “I don’t know what else to do.”
He said, “What would you do if you could do anything?” I said, “I’d be a Jesuit.” He said, “Why don’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, why don’t I?”
You have written, “The greatest temptation of Christian spirituality is the attempt to establish the demarcation between … God who’s all good and … the world of created things.” How can we overcome this temptation and grow in faith?
By making peace with living in an imperfect world and responding to the invitation from St. Ignatius to be a “contemplative in action”: a person who has a contemplative attitude in a world of imperfect things and people. Jesus came into an imperfect world. That’s our model. It is the Ignatian idea of “finding God in all things,” especially in imperfect things, because the only perfect thing is God.
You write that in your prayer you speak with God as a loving and trusting son. Can you elaborate on that?
The way parents hope their child would speak to them—honestly—is the way I think God hopes we will speak to God. That’s the way the disciples spoke to Jesus. One of my favorite examples is the story in the Gospel of Luke, where Mary is at Jesus’ feet and Martha is working. Martha is clearly close enough to Jesus that she feels comfortable to say, “Tell her to help me.” That’s pretty blunt! This is what God wants from us—our honesty.
In your prayer, you’re not saying, “Forgive me, forgive me.” You’re saying, “Hold on a second. Help me understand this.”
Well, sometimes I’m saying, “Forgive me, forgive me.” I am a sinner, after all. God already knows that, and I certainly know it. Jesuits look at ourselves, and ask other people to look at themselves, as “loved sinners,” people who are sinners but who are also loved by God, and redeemed by Jesus. That frees you to talk to God more honestly.
I go to God and ask for forgiveness, and to confession and ask for forgiveness for my sins, but not all the time. Sometimes it’s more in the back of my mind. Let’s say your son crashed your car. For the next year, that would be on his mind. You would be looking at him lovingly and probably feel, “Oh my gosh, this kid needs to get over it.” But it would always be on his mind. He might express it once or twice, and then you’ll forgive him, give him a big hug, or maybe after he pays off the damage! But then it’s done. Now, he might come to you conscious of that, but that is not what you want to hear all the time: “Please forgive me.” So, it’s about holding those two things in tension. “My father, I’m embarrassed about having crashed the car, but I also am confident in your love.”
How can we understand forgiveness, reconciliation, making amends and moving on?
Jesus forgives the people who nailed him to the cross. He forgives Peter, who denied him three times. On the cross, he prays for the Roman soldiers. And for Peter, he goes the extra mile by not only saying, “I forgive you” three times, but also saying, “Now I’m going to make you the leader of my flock.” It’s overabundance of forgiveness.
Now, we tend to think, “God’s forgiveness is really like my forgiveness,” and we can’t forgive ourselves. We do the same to other people. We say, “They have to be punished.” But Jesus asks us to forgive “70 times seven.” We feel like we can only forgive so much, but God is not like us.
It’s encouraging people to look at the stories of Jesus and experience forgiveness in their own life and remind themselves that God’s mercy is greater than we are. As Peter Fink, a Jesuit theologian, says about confession, “It’s not about how bad you are, but how good God is.”
In writing about reasons to go to church, you quote Ronald Rolheiser’s saying, “Because God called me there.” Then you say, “The Church in this country needs our help.” What do you mean?
At baptism, you are called into the Church by Jesus—by name, not just as part of a faceless mass of people. Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, Matthew, Nathaniel… It’s an individual call, and Jesus calls each of these people into the group of apostles.
There is something that God’s going to ask you to do with your background and experiences and talents. That is, as an individual. But we’re also called to work together. Mother Teresa said, “You can do something I cannot do. I can do something you cannot do. Together, let us do something beautiful for God.”
Is your work more focused on having people return to the Church or having the Church returned to people?
The Church is the people, not just the institution. In some cases, people marginalize themselves from the Church. They stop going to Mass, stop participating. In other situations, the Church pushes people away, as in the case of LGBT people or divorced and remarried Catholics. Women sometimes feel marginalized from the Church as well. The goal is to bring people who have marginalized themselves back to the Church, and also people whom the Church has marginalized.
You have talked about people saying, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” with regard to LGBT people. Please comment.
Usually when people say that, they’re not loving LGBT people at all, but reducing them to sinners. When we talk about married people, for example, we never say, “And how many of you are committing adultery? How many of you are using birth control? How many of you are divorced and remarried without an annulment? How many of you are cheating on your wife?” We don’t approach married people like that. So why are we approaching LGBT people like that?
If you look at the Gospel stories of Jesus meeting people on the margins, it’s welcome first, even for people who were considered sinners, like Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus sees Zacchaeus, who has climbed a tree to see him pass through Jericho. Now remember that Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector and is therefore considered the chief sinner of Jericho. But Jesus doesn’t shout at him and say, “Sinful person!” Instead he says to Zacchaeus, “Come down from that tree; I want to come to your house today.”
The crowd “grumbles” because they don’t like Jesus reaching out to someone who feels like he’s on the margins. Jesus’ model is welcome for people on the margins, not calling them out about any perceived sin. I’m not saying LGBT people are more sinful than anyone else. But that’s how we treat them—the foremost sinners, as if no one else sins in this Church.
How can we recognize our blind spots in compassion?
By speaking to people who are on the margins and who feel we are not bothering with them. My moral theology professor, Jesuit Father James F. Keenan, said that in the Gospels Jesus doesn’t critique people who are weak and trying. He critiques people who are strong and not bothering: Lazarus, the rich man who just walks over Dives, the poor guy outside the door; Pharisees who don’t bother to think someone might need healing on the Sabbath. That’s the sin for Jesus—a failure to bother to love.
How do you see the Church serving in a digital age?
The great thing about the digital age is that we can go where people are. Jesus went to where people were. Then he speaks to them in a way they can understand. When he meets Peter and Andrew fishing by the Sea of Galilee, he does not speak the language of a carpenter. He speaks to them in the language of fishermen, saying, “I will make you fish for people.”
When preaching, Jesus uses things from the people’s everyday life: birds and wheat and mustard seeds. He uses a medium, the parable, that they can understand. We also need to speak to people in their languages, and with media that they can understand. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat—that’s how to reach people today.
How can we best use information platforms to reach people?
First, by preaching the Gospel. Second, by talking about Jesus. Third, by being accessible and inviting. We usually forget the second part. The Church is about an encounter with Jesus. But the more we talk about Jesus, the more people are going to want to follow us—and him.
Featured Image: Father James Martin.
From Maryknoll’s podcast, Among The People Episode 3. Father Jim Martin, Finding Good in All things