Fr. James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America Magazine, and author of over 10 books. Before entering the Jesuits, he graduated from the Wharton School of Business and worked for General Electric. His debut novel The Abbey will be released on October 13.
Harvard Political Review: Why did you feel called to join the priesthood and the Jesuits in particular?
Fr. James Martin, SJ: I went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. After graduation in 1982, I took a job with GE, first in New York City and then in Stamford, Connecticut. Eventually I realized that I was in the wrong place and that no one had really asked me the question that I think should be asked of all young people, which is “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to?”
I got more and more miserable, and then one night I turned on the TV and saw a documentary about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. And that documentary was sufficiently interesting to prompt me to track down and purchase his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain which got me thinking about entering a religious order. Eventually I entered the Jesuits, but I didn’t really know much about the Jesuits. At the beginning, they were recommended to me by a parish priest as an aside. [Laughs] But on such asides are lives changed.
Initially it was the fact that Jesuits were able to do so many things—you could be a writer and a Jesuit, you could be a social activist and a Jesuit, you could be a teacher and a Jesuit—it was that hyphenated priesthood that appealed to me. But what keeps me (in addition to my vows of course) is the distinctive Jesuit spirituality of finding God in all things.
When you ultimately realized that you wanted to join the Jesuits, how did your peers at Penn receive that news?
They were horrified, absolutely horrified. As were my parents and the rest of my family. Wharton prepares you for a certain type of life, and once you get on that treadmill, you step off that treadmill and you’re in corporate America. That’s what my friends assumed I would be doing for the rest of my life and I had really never evinced an interest in religion, nor was I particularly religious when I was at Penn.
So it came as a shock to them that I was even thinking about doing this. And that I would leave GE and enter the Jesuits was really appalling to a lot of my friends. Interestingly I had been seeing a psychologist helping me through some of these decisions. When I announced it to my GE friends, one of my friends said, “I think you should see a psychologist.” And I said, “I am seeing a psychologist.” And he said, “I think you should see a different psychologist!” [Laughs]
Do you regret your time at Penn?
No I don’t, no. I loved my time at Penn. I learned a lot and made a lot of good friends. And I also think it’s important for priests and members of religious orders to have lived a “real life” before they enter the priesthood or a religious order. I think it’s essential because I know what it means to earn a living and pay rent and get paid and be worried about getting fired and all those kinds of things. I think that’s essential for understanding the world.
And not that the priesthood or religious order isn’t real life—we come into contact with a lot more life than many other professions—but I think earning a living is really important for people before they enter.
How did you come to the position you’re in now, an author and priest with a very wide social media presence?
I started at America Magazine more than 15 years ago, right after my ordination. Part of that work was dealing with the media, which it still is. So that’s an aspect of it. But it wasn’t until Facebook really started to take off that my publisher at the time, Loyola Press, said I needed a public Facebook page.
I resisted because I thought, “Oh, one more thing to do.” But once I got going I realized that it was a form of ministry—that you are really helping people by connecting them with interesting articles and videos and posting meditations. And then I really enjoyed it and it became a kind of community. It’s definitely a ministry to help people in their religious lives, and to help seekers and doubters too.
How did your social media followers come to recognize this as more than a marketing tool but, like you said, as a form of ministry? Was that a learning process on their end?
I don’t want to speak for all 350,000 of them … but the founder of the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius, said the goal of the Jesuits should be to “help souls.” That’s the goal of everything we do: all the books I write, all the articles I write, all the media appearances, all the stuff I post on social media, it’s all to try to help souls. There may be some promotion when I’m about to publish a book (as I am now), but most of it’s not [promotion]. Most of the time it’s articles that don’t have anything to do with America Magazine. It’s a kind of clearinghouse for a lot of Catholic information.
And I think [my social media followers] recognized that pretty quickly. And I’d also be embarrassed to have a Facebook page that’s just self-promotional. It’s not only a threat to my humility but, practically speaking, it’s a real turn-off for people. I’d be embarrassed to have a Facebook page or Twitter account that just promoted me. I’d be mortified.
I’ve stared to be careful not to post photos of myself because of that. I think it’s a very self-aggrandizing. So when I post a photo of an event I’ve been to I usually post the crowd or another group of people, or maybe me in a group of people. But never just selfies. It’s embarrassing.
Do you think that traditional media outlets allow you to have a similarly enriching discussion or ministry?
Both forms of conversation have their pluses and minuses. The plus of being on television is that you can say something in a very straightforward way and it will reach millions of people without a lot of trolls responding. If you’re with a thoughtful interviewer, you can have a good conversation. The minus is that it’s usually very short unless you’re on a long segment on a talk show.
The plus of social media is that you can post an article that’s 5,000 words and have people respond to it. You can post a 30-minute video, it can be quite in-depth, and it can also be very accessible for people at any time and they can watch it in the privacy of their own home or office. The downside is that you run the risk of starting crazy arguments in the comments section—though more so on Facebook than Twitter, I think. But that goes with the territory.
The other thing is that you can have an influence on how people view something. With the whole Kim Davis affair after the pope, I posted a link to an article and a million people viewed it. That’s a significant amount of people that you’re at least reaching. But then again, the downside is that some of the comments can be very hateful, especially in the religious world because people think they have God on their side.
When the story of Kim Davis’s meeting with the pope first broke, did you feel frustrated or betrayed by the initial coverage it received from media outlets before the full story was clear?
No, I felt more frustrated with her and her lawyers. I thought the media did a reasonably good job of covering it. I think [the media] gave it more importance than it had. I think both the mainstream media and the consuming public should have known better. It’s not that hard to figure out that the pope meets with dozens of people each day when he’s on these trips. He probably doesn’t know one-quarter of those whom he’s meeting with. They’re donors and Catholics and all sorts of people.
That really got blown out of proportion, but frankly I blame [Davis’s] lawyer for doing that. He was really the one that made it such a big deal. But in a sense, in retrospect, it was the perfect storm because it had religion, it had politics, it had sex because it loosely touches on same-sex marriage, it had supposed secrecy.
If you could take one common idea about the Catholic Church that you think is mistaken, what would that be and how would you like to correct it?
Just one? [Laughs] That everyone in the Catholic Church thinks the same way. When people say, “What does the Church think about this?” I always say, “Well who in the Church? I mean, the pope? The Synod of Bishops? Your local bishop? Your pastor? The people in the pews? Because they’re the Church. The sisters in the United States? Priests?”
That’s the problem … And of course there’s some fundamentals, but it always makes me laugh when people say, “What does the Church say about this?” and I say, “What part?”
And then there’s the idea that everyone in the Church is, you name it, homophobic, sexist, racist, those kinds of things. When you meet the people who are actually working in the Church, you’re usually disavowed of that pretty quickly.
And the third thing I have to say is this: [the notion that] priests and members of religious orders, like brothers and sisters, really live these secluded, unsophisticated, almost silly lives. You meet sisters who work with immigrant populations in the slums, you meet priests who work in refugee camps, you meet brothers who work in inner-city schools. These people know a lot more about life than you would think.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image credit: Fr. James Martin, SJ