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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Father James Martin, S.J.

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism


Dr. Knight: This is a time of hope in the Church with our spiritually compassionate Pope and other believers who understand his vision. How do you think he has inspired people?

Father Martin: Mainly by being authentic. In the Gospels, we read that the people of Jesus’s time would often say that Jesus spoke “with authority.” New Testament scholars remind us that instead of referring to another person’s authority, Jesus simply said things on his own, under his own authority. “Amen, amen I say to you,” he would say.

But there is another way that he taught with authority: his words gave meaning to his actions and his actions meaning to his words. Pope Francis does the same thing. He talks about living simply, and he lives simply. He talks about loving the poor, and he loves the poor. He talks about mercy and he is merciful. So his Christianity is, in that sense, authoritative. And that is deeply attractive, and inspiring to people.

Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a Jesuit priest?

Father Martin: I hadn’t grown up in a super religious family, and so it came as a surprise to me. And to my family and friends too. After graduating from the Wharton School of Business and working for GE for a few years, I realized I was in the wrong place. But I didn’t know how to “get out.”

One night I came home from a busy day at work and saw a documentary about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, which really spoke to me. That led me to his book The Seven Storey Mountain, which led me to consider the priesthood, which led me to consider the Jesuits. So, a long and winding road, to quote The Beatles.

Dr. Knight: How has this call changed over time?

Father Martin: We have a saying in the Jesuits that you stay for different reasons than why you entered. I entered because of what the Jesuits do: work in schools, minister to refugees, run retreat houses, and the like. I stay because of who we are: loved sinners, committed to Christ.

Dr. Knight: How about an easy question: what is your favorite film at this time?

Father Martin, S.J: Funny enough, I have a new favorite film: Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It’s a nearly perfect film. Book? Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. Which is an exquisitely written novel.

.Dr. Knight: Do you think sexual harassment in the workplace has increased because of interest and use of pornography?

Father Martin: That’s an interesting question. I’m certainly no expert in that—either as a sociologist or a psychologist. But I would imagine that if you use pornography you will be tempted to think of other people as objects, or, even worse, as objects that exist for your pleasure. And that kind of narcissism may indeed carry over into the workplace. So, on balance, I would agree with that.

Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that the use of social media in our parishes can assist young people to think about knowing/loving/serving God through their ‘cyber-neighbor’?

Father Martin: Social media is a wonderful way for people to connect with one another and keep in touch. Of course, it’s no substitute for one-on-one encounter and live conversation but it can foster bonds of connection. Parishes and other church groups can encourage young people on social media by providing nourishing content for them and pointing them to places on the web that can help them spiritually.

Dr. Knight: When were you appointed chaplain on The Colbert Report and what were your responsibilities as chaplain?


Father Martin: I don't remember to be honest; he sort of sprung it on me. My responsibilities were pretty light: come on the show whenever he asked.

Dr. Knight: How many times did you appear on The Colbert Report and what were some of the topics that you discussed?

Father Martin: I would say about five or six times, as I recall, and of course, we talked almost exclusively about the church. A lot of times it was something that the Pope had said at the time.

Dr. Knight: There have been very influential Jesuits throughout the ages including saints. Why do Jesuits have such a huge impact?


Father Martin: I’m a bit biased of course, but I think perhaps it’s because our spirituality—Ignatian spirituality, which flows from the life and writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, our founder—is so accessible and inviting. It also takes people—and Jesuits--where they are. Thus, a Jesuit is encouraged to use his natural talents and gifts “for the greater glory of God,” as we say. In that way, we have been able to attract some pretty amazing, and amazingly holy, men. So it’s less about who the Jesuits are individually and more about how our spirituality forms us.

Dr. Knight: How have the Jesuits been involved in liberation theology?

Father Martin, S.J.: Intimately, especially in Latin America. There are many Jesuit theologians who have written on liberation theology (which has gotten an unfairly bad rap in the past), but mainly its been embraced by those Jesuits who have worked among the poor and have encountered Christ there. So they have been involved in teaching liberation theology not only in academic settings but in slums and favelas.

Dr. Knight: As the editor of America magazine you are able to educate and spiritually form many people in the society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart?

Father Martin: There is really one issue, or rather one person: Jesus. All my work, I hope, is oriented toward helping people enter into a deeper relationship with him.

Dr. Knight: You’ve written a book entitled: Building a Bridge which deals with the way we all relate to the LGBT community. Could you give us some insights into the effective/affective ways to do so?

Father Martin: My approach in the book was to focus on the three virtues that the Catechism highlights to help us relate to the LGBT community—"respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” And while the LGBT community can also treat the institutional church with those same virtues, the onus is on the church to do the outreach. Because it’s the church that has marginalized the LGBT Catholic community, not the other way around.

Dr. Knight: There have been very influential Jesuits throughout the ages including saints. Why do Jesuits have such a huge impact?


Father Martin: I’m a bit biased of course, but I think perhaps it’s because our spirituality—Ignatian spirituality, which flows from the life and writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, our founder—is so accessible and inviting. It also takes people—and Jesuits--where they are. Thus, a Jesuit is encouraged to use his natural talents and gifts “for the greater glory of God,” as we say. In that way, we have been able to attract some pretty amazing, and amazingly holy, men. So it’s less about who the Jesuits are individually and more about how our spirituality forms us.

Dr. Knight: How have the Jesuits been involved in liberation theology?

Father Martin: Intimately, especially in Latin America. There are many Jesuit theologians who have written on liberation theology (which has gotten an unfairly bad rap in the past), but mainly it’s been embraced by those Jesuits who have worked among the poor and have encountered Christ there. So they have been involved in teaching liberation theology not only in academic settings but in slums and favelas.

Dr. Knight: It seems that Jesuits have a very full lifestyle with leisure activities and purposeful work that would be of interest to our readers such as the help that has been provided to immigrants and your own love of travel (Jesus: A Pilgrimage).

Father Martin: Well, we can’t travel too much, since we take a vow of poverty, and I travel mainly for work, but I was happy to invite people along on my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in my book on Jesus. That was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had, and when I wrote the book, which is A Life of Christ, I wanted to share what those towns and cities that we read about in the Gospels— Nazareth, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Jerusalem—are really like. It’s a reminder that Jesus came to a real place in a real-time.

Dr. Knight: What can we do for the Church?

Father Martin: The most important issue to address is sex abuse. We should do everything we can to report it, to prevent it, to apologize and make restitution to victims, and to help the healing of the church. If we don't do that, nothing else we do will matter. Because people won't care.

Dr. Knight: Your interview is certainly very complete but you have continued to be generous in light of the work of the Catholic Church. Your service has included the marginalized and disenfranchised – could you tell us a bit more about this ministry?

Father Martin: I have been working with LGBTQ people since my book Building a Bridge came out in 2016. Essentially, it's a ministry of outreach (and we have a new website by that name--Outreach.faith--to help LGBTQ people feel more at home in what is, after all, their church too.

Dr. Knight: This is a time of hope in the Church with our spiritually compassionate Pope and other believers who understand his vision. The Pope has appointed you along with the Cardinals he has anointed to be part of the Synod in October. What do you hope to accomplish in light of the focus of this meeting?

Father Martin: The most important thing will be to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, active and alive in all the People of God, especially those who are poor or marginalized in any way.

Dr. Knight: Could you tell us a bit about your new book Come Forth? It is coming out in September and is attentive to the readers’ understanding.

Father Martin: It's a "deep dive" into the Gospel story of the Raising of Lazarus. Using biblical scholarship, some personal experiences, spiritual insights, examination of Lazarus's place in art and culture and a bit of history of the Holy Land, it invites us deeper into what is often called "Jesus's greatest miracle." And it invites the reader to listen to where God's voice is calling us to "Come forth" out of our "tombs" and whatever keeps us unfree or bound, and into new life.

Dr. Knight: What other issues do you have as a priority for our work as a society?

Father Martin That’s a good question. As I said, I focus on helping people encounter Jesus. And trying to help people see Jesus as he exists on the margins. That means reaching out to marginalized people. Which was where Jesus spent most of his time anyway. So he’s not hard to find there at all.

Dr. Knight: In the face of the future of our present generation what are the significant issues you want to bring to them? The junior high school students I met at Holy Fire retreat were in love with Christ and His Church.

Father Martin: The most important issue for this generation (as for many generations) seems to be authenticity. They want a church and ministers who are authentic. Who are addressing the issues of sex abuse? Who lead holy lives. And who loves Jesus? We'd go a long way if we could simply do those three things.

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