Pristine images of the Holy Land, from Capernaum where Jesus preached and performed miracles, to Galilee, where his traveling left the Old Testament behind to begin New Testament times, fill Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s imagination after 25 years of reading and praying about Christ.
Reluctance also pierced Fr. Martin’s thoughts as he contemplated visiting the Holy Land for two weeks to gather information and inspiration for a book, his 11th since being ordained a priest in 1999.
“I was reluctant because I had prayed about the Gospel stories so many times I felt my own pristine images of the Holy Land would be supplanted by touristy locales and gift shops. But the opposite actually happened. I was able to appreciate the story of Jesus as I never had before,” said Fr. Martin on the eve of release of his book, “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”
The book release comes, coincidentally, the same week former Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio marks one year as Pope Francis and the same week Marquette University announced Fr. Martin as the school’s 2014 spring commencement speaker.
“One year after the first Jesuit was named pope, I’m thrilled to announce a fellow Jesuit as Marquette’s commencement speaker,” said Jesuit Rev. Robert A. Wild, Marquette’s interim president. “From his best-selling books to his active engagement in social media, Fr. Martin has helped articulate the values and mission of Jesuits and Catholics across the globe.”
Marquette’s commencement will be Sunday, May 18, at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Simple message for grads
An award winning author, prolific user of social media with 64,000 followers on Facebook and 38,000 on Twitter, as well as editor-at-large at America, a national Catholic magazine, Fr. Martin said he intends to bring a simple message to the graduates.
“My message is going to be one of joy and not taking yourself too seriously, even though you’ve graduated from a great Jesuit school,” Fr. Martin told the Catholic Herald in a telephone interview from his home in New York.
In addition to writing books, Fr. Martin has authored articles for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and dozens of other major newspapers, magazines and Web sites.
His commentaries on religion and spirituality have landed him appearances on every major radio, television and cable network, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” PBS’s “News Hour,” the History Channel, the BBC, Voice of America and Vatican Radio.
Guided by Holy Spirit
Fr. Martin said “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” is a culmination of information from his 10 previous books.
“Jesus is the most important person in my life, the most important anything in my life,” Fr. Martin said. “In a sense, all my books have been leading up to this one. I’ve been thinking about, reading about and praying about Jesus for the last 25 years as a Jesuit. So really, all that I am was poured into this book.”
Writing the 528-page book was the hardest, but most satisfying experience ever in his life, Fr. Martin said.
“It’s hard to describe how exciting it was to spend so much time with the Gospels. I could feel the Spirit with me. Each chapter talks about a particular part of Jesus’ life,” Fr. Martin said. “When I was writing, for example, about Jesus’ time in Nazareth and his ‘hidden life,’ I could feel myself getting more excited about it. All I wanted to do was spend time researching his hidden life. And then when I finished a chapter, I could feel my interest in that message withdraw and move to something else. So I could feel the Holy Spirit guiding me through the writing process.”
Book combines 3 genres
Fr. Martin said “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” contains three genres, or categories.
“Each chapter has a little travel narrative about my time in the Holy Land, a little Bible study or careful examination of a relevant passage and a little spirituality answering the question what does this mean to you today? Most books are usually one of those three. There aren’t too many books that bring all three together,” Fr. Martin said.
But with literally thousands of books written about Jesus over the ages the challenge was to bring something new to readers.
“Most books about Jesus fall into two categories. They either talk about what is called the Jesus in history, which is what we can learn about first century Palestine and what life would have been like in Jesus’ time,” Fr. Martin said. “Or they talk about the Christ of faith, the person who performed miracles and was raised from the dead.
“My book combines both. I remind people it’s important to know both of them. So it’s important to combine his humanity and divinity to get a full picture of Jesus. There really aren’t many books that do that.”
Visit to Sea of Galilee ‘life changing’
Making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a friend proved impressive, particularly a visit to the Sea of Galilee.
“My visit to the Sea of Galilee was life changing,” Fr. Martin said. “Before I had gone, I expected the area to be overrun with tourists and clogged with souvenir shops and things like that, but the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus did most of his ministry, remains pretty much the way is was when he left it. You can stand on the shore at Capernaum, which was the base of his ministries, and look out over the sea and see it exactly as Jesus saw it. That is profound. To be able to say, ‘Jesus saw this standing here’ is overwhelming.”
Fr. Martin said his readership audience “is everyone.”
“The book is written for people who know very little about Jesus. I bring them up to speed on how the Gospels were edited, how to understand the miracles and what he is saying,” Fr. Martin said. “It’s also for people who have spent their whole lives reading about Jesus. They’ll learn new things about Jesus as the Christ of faith. They’ll read about the Jesus I know, which is something new.”
Colbert Report’s ‘official chaplain’
Several appearances on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” have earned him the title of the show’s official chaplain.
Something new for Fr. Martin, with a reputation for being humorous, is playing the straight man for comedian Stephen Colbert during regular four-minute appearances on the show.
“Stephen Colbert plays a character. Before the show, he always comes up to the guests and says, ‘Don’t forget. My character is an idiot,’” Fr. Martin said. “I know I can’t out-funny one of the funniest people in the world. So I am content to be the straight man.”
He said the premise of the show is to treat Colbert, a Catholic who typically makes headline-grabbing comments about the faith, as an idiot and attract audience laughs.
“In the same way you would deal with an idiot, you try to be very patient. The viewers all know that,” Fr. Martin said. “It’s a totally fun show and he is a great guy off camera. And it’s a great way to evangelize. More 20- and 30-somethings will see those few minutes of the show than hear my homilies in a year.”
As a fellow Jesuit, Catholic and Christian, Fr. Martin said he admires Pope Francis.
“I think Pope Francis is one of the greatest popes of the modern age,” Fr. Martin said. “I’m delighted with what he is doing. He has made so many more people feel welcome in the church. He makes me even more excited about being a Jesuit, a priest, a Catholic and Christian.”
Support for the marginalized
Fr. Martin hasn’t been hesitant to speak out in social and written media in support for people embroiled in controversy, most recently NBA center Jason Collins, the first openly gay player active in professional basketball.
“I try to support people who might feel marginalized, excluded or unwelcome,” Fr. Martin said. “I’m trying to follow the pope’s lead on that. This is all good. Jesus’ ministry was always reaching out those on the outside and always bringing people in to make them feel welcome. He was always showing God’s hospitality.”
When, in 2012, the Vatican found the Leadership Conference of Women Religious suffered from “serious doctrinal problems” and exhibited “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” as well as alleged dissent from church teachings, including sacramental male priesthood and homosexuality, Fr. Martin started a tweet, “#WhatSistersMeanToMe,” inviting comments on the influence of nuns and sisters in an individual’s life.
Fr. Martin said the tweet wasn’t a slap at the Vatican, which called for reforms of the organization representing a majority of sisters in the country.
“Not at all. That was a time many sisters felt demoralized,” Fr. Martin said. “I thought a wonderful way to support them was to invite people to talk about what sisters meant to them. It wasn’t meant as a challenge to the Vatican at all. It was to support the sisters. The tweet allowed people to show their gratitude of all the things women religious have done.”
Not liberal or conservative
Although many of the media outlets in which Fr. Martin participates have a liberal bent, that doesn’t mean he is a liberal or conservative.
“I don’t think (liberal and conservative) categories are useful in the church. Would you say Jesus was a liberal or conservative? I think Catholicism transcends that. For example, I am pro-life across the board and for natural birth and natural death. I am very traditional about my beliefs in the church and in Jesus. As well, I am also interested in social justice and helping the poor, as was Jesus. The Catholic way of looking at things is neither conservative or liberal.”
Presider at Hoffman funeral
Fr. Martin recently presided over the funeral of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, authorities said, died of a drug overdose.
The funeral was held at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in New York, the same church where Fr. Martin coached Hoffman for his role as a priest in the film “Doubt,” about a priest suspected of child abuse.
“He wanted to know all about the life of a priest, so it seems appropriate the Mass was held there,” Fr. Martin said. “It’s still hard to talk about. I was not his best friend or close friend, but I was a friend.”
Fr. Martin said he was honored to be invited by the family to celebrate the funeral Mass.
“He was baptized a Catholic. His family is all Catholic,” Fr. Martin said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be a priest because, in his case, the family didn’t have a whole lot of connections with priests, so I felt particularly useful as a minister. It was a very profound experience to preach the Gospel, deliver the homily and preside at his Mass. On that day, I felt particularly moved.”
In his book, “The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything,” Fr. Martin talks several times of the Ignatius way — a road of faith that ends with God.
Fr. Martin said he is helping people to travel the way of Ignatius to God.
“‘The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything’ was an explicit invitation to come to understand the richness of Ignatian spirituality. In my personal life, I am a spiritual director for 10 people and regularly lead retreats. I give talks on spirituality,” he said.
Although his life is busy and his evangelizing wide spread, Fr. Martin said, if he could ask people, as Jesus asked his disciples in Matthew, “Who do you say that I am?,” the answer would hopefully be simple.
“He’s a good Christian. That’s what I would want them to say,” Fr. Martin said.