At 27, with a Wharton School of Business degree and a job at General Electric, James Martin decided to try something completely different: the priesthood. Ordained a Jesuit in 1999, he is now a prolific author,magazine editor, and media commentator whose elucidations on Church teaching are sought by everyone from newsman Bill O’Reilly of Fox News to satirist Stephen Colbert on the Comedy Central cable channel.
“I began to grow dissatisfied with my job,” Martin says, recalling his decision to leave the corporate world and enter the seminary. “I felt [I was] in the wrong place. One day, I turned on the TV and saw a documentary about Thomas Merton. It just captivated me. Something about the look on his face—a look of serenity—called out to me. That prompted me to read his books, and that started me thinking about doing something else. I always joke that my vocation began with television.”
His coworkers and relatives reacted to his vocation with stunned surprise. “My parents were horrified,” he says. “How could they not be? I just sprang it on them. A few of my friends at work thought I was crazy—literally. One said, ‘You should see a psychologist.’ I said, ‘I already am; that’s how I was helped to make this decision.’ He said, ‘You should see another psychologist!’”
Wasting His Education
That’s a statement that no one could have predicted. Martin, a cradle Catholic, and his sister, Carolyn, grew up in Plymouth Meeting, a Philadelphia suburb. He did not attend Catholic schools and was not familiar with many Church traditions.
“I missed out on a whole raft of things that other Catholics my age seem to take for granted,” he admits. “I had never learned to say the rosary, had no idea what a novena was, never had made any sort of pilgrimage, had done zero work with the poor or on behalf of social justice (and didn’t know what social justice was), knew almost none of the saints, and, to top it all off, had heard only those parts of the Bible that were read aloud during Mass.”
His years in training for his ordination filled in some of the blanks and introduced Martin to social justice, not just as a theory, but also as an action. He has worked in a hospice in Jamaica, served at a mission school in New York City, labored in an outreach program to street-gang members and an employment center in Chicago, helped refugees in Kenya, and dealt with prison inmates in Boston.
He says that such field experiences refuted those “who thought I was—and I quote— ‘wasting’ my education. Others thought I was running away from my problems. Religious life is the last place you can do that; you’re always being encouraged to examine your own life. Religious life, if lived honestly, is the last place you can run away from your problems.”
Martin’s experiences with the needy at home and abroad taught him profound lessons he has retained. “The first lesson was that they were individuals. I tended to think in categories: the poor, the sick, the homeless, the dying, and so on. But then I met them as individuals with unique stories, desires, hopes, and dreams. Sometimes, I wonder if this was one reason Jesus’ ministry was so shocking to people. He didn’t see a Roman, a leper, or a prostitute; he saw an individual. Only then could healing happen.”
Several of Martin’s books have evolved from his own experiences, including time as a chaplain during a pilgrimage to Lourdes and days spent at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11.
He summarizes his time there as “a profound experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I saw a tremendous amount of unity and peace and concord among the rescue workers. We were all working where many had already given their lives in service to others, so that lent a sacredness to the site. I remember thinking that God was offering us a parable, the way Jesus would, to help us understand his love. How much does God love us? God loves us as much as the firefighter who rushes into the burning building.”
The topics of his other books range from sainthood to off-Broadway plays, from spirituality to his most recent volume: Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. “I try to write about faith in a way that is inviting and accessible,”
“My favorite writers are those who write in a simple, clear, and uncluttered way. Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Kathleen Norris have a knack for weaving into their books their own personal experiences and struggles, not as a way of focusing attention on themselves but to show the workings of grace in limited and flawed humanity.”
Spirituality and Media
Father James Martin, the priest whose vocation began with TV, has had experiences on television, radio, and even off-Broadway, when he was a consultant to a playwright, director, and actors putting on a play about Judas.
Asked what he would name as the most spiritual film ever, but not necessarily an overtly religious film, he replies, “The movies that speak to me on a spiritual level are usually overtly religious: Of Gods and Men or The Tree of Life.
“But I find Lawrence of Arabia a rather spiritual film in its emphasis on friendship, courage in the face of danger, and the need to battle the status quo. Also, there is a kind of mysticism of the desert, an asceticism that the director David Lean portrays well. T.E. Lawrence was no saint, but Lean’s film is quite an overlooked spiritual work.”
As for a fictional TV series that deals with spirituality in an effective way, the priest selects Mad Men on AMC. He points out that it “deals with a great many spiritual topics: relationships, love, truth, justice, fidelity, moral decision-making (even though relatively few of the characters choose the right thing). In a sense, it represents a kind of modern morality tale.
“I think that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the funniest movie ever made,” he adds. “The combination of silliness, erudition, and cultural commentary is rather priceless. It’s hard to say why it makes me laugh, but it does.” He likes “over-the-top comedians like Lewis Black” and the homespun humor of Bill Cosby. “I’m pretty promiscuous when it comes to comedy—the only part of my life that is promiscuous, by the way.”
Invited to name comedians or comedies that address serious topics through humor, Martin begins with stand-up comic Margaret Cho, who, “while ribald, does a great job of making her listeners look at racism, sexism, and homophobia. Some of the best skewering of corporate America is Alec Baldwin’s [portrayal of] Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock,” a sitcom on NBC. “I used to work for GE, and I knew a few people like that. Baldwin is pretty brilliant, and so is Tina Fey,” the creator of the series.
On the other side of the comedy coin, the priest admits, “I will never understand how Two and a Half Men was, for a time, the most popular show on television. The success of that show is utterly mystifying. I could probably explain the Trinity more easily than I could that show’s ratings.”
In Media Demand
Books and film are not his only encounters with methods of mass communication. His assignment since he was ordained has been as an editor at America, a Jesuit-run weekly magazine. He reviews and edits manuscripts, writes articles, and even blogs. Although he now is listed as a contributing editor, until recently he commissioned and edited the magazine’s culture section, covering film, theater, television, music, fine arts, architecture, “and an elusive area we call ‘ideas.’”
Martin has been a guest on radio outlets such as NPR, the BBC, and Vatican Radio, and on Comedy Central television (see box). Often, he notes, his appearances are “just to provide commentary or analysis of something that has happened in the Church: a bishop’s pronouncement, a Vatican document, even a papal conclave. Frequently, it’s answering simple questions: ‘What’s a cardinal?’ and things like that.”
But he is also booked to comment on spiritual issues that arise because of something that has happened in the world, such as a tragedy or war. He wryly notes he is also summoned around Christmas and Easter “to explain the Incarnation and the Resurrection (in 30 seconds!).”
Despite the often ignorant or naïve questions he faces—“my favorite from a journalist was ‘Were your parents Jesuits?’”—Martin eagerly accepts the invitations because “it’s a terrific form of evangelization. It’s right where the Church needs to be. So many people these days get their news from TV and the Internet that not to engage those media would be an enormous loss for the Church.
“Second, you can reach millions of people, often when they are more open to hearing.” He notes that Jesus himself preached among the people. “He used the media of the parable and everyday objects to communicate his message,” Martin says. “If Jesus didn’t think it was beneath him to tell stories about mustard seeds and the birds of the air, who are we to disdain television or the Internet? We should be using all forms of communication to spread the good news.”
Saints have proven to be both a favorite topic of Martin’s and a favorite interest of his readers. “We are naturally drawn to holiness because it speaks to a deep part of ourselves,” he says, explaining the appeal of saints. “Not only are we attracted to the saints because they led fascinating lives and because they inspire us with their Christian service; we are also responding to their holiness, which is a clear manifestation of God’s presence. We may not recognize it on a conscious level, but this is part of their appeal.”
The surprising—and surprisingly popular—topic of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life is Ignatian spirituality, from St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the religious order.
James says that he wrote it “to offer an introduction to Jesuit spirituality for absolutely everyone—from the doubtful agnostic to the devout believer, from people who never had heard of St. Ignatius to graduates of Jesuit schools. It was a question of sharing something that I know is useful and accessible with as wide a group of people as possible. I tried to write something that anyone could read.”
Less esoteric is his 2011 book on religion and humor, which he wrote “as a response to a certain lack of joyfulness that I’ve seen in those I would call ‘professionally religious’ people—and not just Catholics. Sometimes, it seems as if we’ve forgotten that Christ is risen.
“I’m trying to remind people that faith leads to joy, that the saints and great spiritual masters used humor as a tool in their quest for humility, and that laughter is an essential element of a healthy spirituality. As the saying goes, ‘If you’re deadly serious, you’re probably seriously dead!’ With this book, I’m trying to revive us a bit.”