Story

By Fannie Dionne

Fr. James Martin, SJ

Prolific writer and speaker, America Media’s editor-at-large, consultant for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication: American Jesuit Fr. James Martin is one of the most well-known Jesuits after Pope Francis. This is due in part from his undeniable talent for making Ignatian spirituality accessible to everyone, but also to his vocal commitment to the inclusion of LGBT people within the Church.

Between his many commitments, he took the time to explain his surprising journey as a Jesuit and the reasons for his commitment.

Bottom line: Like St. Ignatius, Fr. Martin is aiming to follow in the footsteps and example of Jesus. 

What was your childhood like? How did it shape you and perhaps orient you to become a Jesuit? 

I grew up in a Catholic family, but not a super-religious Catholic family. I didn’t go to Catholic schools, but I went to Mass most Sundays and believed in God and had all the sacraments that a child would have. But it wasn’t until after college that I started to think about religious life, and it was seeing a documentary about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton that made me start thinking about doing something different with my life. Up until that point, I had been working in corporate finance, but was quite dissatisfied. And it was Thomas Merton and his book, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” that made me start thinking about doing something else. Though I had little idea of what that “something else” would be. 

And why did you join the Jesuits?  

I had very little experience with, or knowledge of, the Jesuits when I started this quest. Interestingly, it was a stray remark from the pastor of my local parish who said that I “might as well” contact the Jesuits at Fairfield University, which was very near where I was living at the time. I also interviewed with a few diocesan seminaries, but I found that the Jesuits just fit me better. There was something about them that I found very appealing. They were very relaxed, they were very inviting, they were very welcoming. They had a great sense of humour, and I felt at home with them pretty much from the beginning. And once I met the Jesuits, it seemed like they were the place to be for me. 

photo : JRS

Have you had any doubts about your vocation since then? 

I think everybody struggles with their vocation from time to time. But, at heart, it’s about a relationship with Jesus and about these vows and promises that I’ve made as a Jesuit and as a priest.

I take these vows and promises very seriously. 

I think everybody struggles with their vocation from time to time. But, at heart, it’s about a relationship with Jesus and about these vows and promises that I’ve made as a Jesuit and as a priest.

You work in communications, at America Media, you are an author, you give conferences. What drew you to the communications apostolate? 

Well, I certainly didn’t start out as a Jesuit thinking that I would end up in this role. When I was working in East Africa with the Jesuit Refugee Service during my regency (the period between first studies and theology), I wrote an article about my experiences with the refugees and sent it to America magazine, and they published it. Then they published another one. Finally, for my third year of regency, after I returned from Kenya, my provincial assigned me to America and that got everything started. I worked there during summers of my theology studies and then was assigned there right after my ordination to the priesthood.  

I’ve always liked reading but I never imagined that I would be this kind of writer — or any kind of writer! But apparently, God had other plans in mind! I’m happy to be here for as long as my superiors would like me to be here; I’d be happy to be here for the rest of my life. But, again, that’s up to them and to God! 

What is the goal of the communication apostolate? 

It is to spread the Gospel. Quite simply, Jesus was engaged in the ministry of communications: He spoke to people, he answered their questions, he told stories, he even gave “lectures,” in a sense. Even his miracles were a way of communicating certain truths about God.

When he told his parables and stories, he was also communicating something. Jesus was a consummate communicator.   

Later on, St. Paul wrote letters, St. Augustine wrote books, and now we have people like Pope Francis tweeting. 

The ministry of communications is essential. Otherwise, how are we going to spread the Gospel? I see the communications work of the Society of Jesus as a ministry of the word, which is an outgrowth of the work that we do in other parts of the Society.  

Also, we must go where people are, like Jesus did. And I would say he did that in two important ways. First, he literally went to where people were, meaning physically. He travelled, for example, all the way from Nazareth to Capernaum to call the first disciples. He didn’t wait for them to come to him.  

When he told his parables and stories, he was also communicating something. Jesus was a consummate communicator.   

Second, once he was there, he spoke to them in their own language. Think about it this way: When he meets the first disciples, who were fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, he doesn’t speak in the language of the carpenter. He doesn’t say, for example, “Come and let us lay the foundations of the reign of God.” Or, “Come after me and we will build God’s house.”  No, Jesus says: “Come after me and I will make you fishers of people.” He’s speaking to them in images that would be meaningful to them. 

That’s what the work of communications is: We go to where people are and then we speak in their language. And if it was not beneath Jesus to do that, then it shouldn’t be beneath us. 

You have written a book and do a lot of work on the relationship between the Church and LGBTQ+ people. You are very vocal about your support for the LGBTQ+ persons. What led you to become involved with this issue in particular? What is your desire when you do this type of work? 

Throughout my Jesuit formation, I worked with people who were considered on the margins (homeless people, street-gang members, refugees), but I didn’t set out to do LGBTQ ministry when I started out as a Jesuit. In fact, the phrase didn’t even exist then! 

Now, one of the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus is Walking with the Excluded and there isn’t a more excluded group of people in the Church — and sometimes in society — than LGBT people.  

Jesuit Father James Martin speaks with Christine Leinonen, a mother and activist in this undated photo. The film “Building a Bridge” is based on his ministry to LGBT Catholics. (CNS photo/courtesy Obscure Pictures)

But it wasn’t until 2016, after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed, that I started to think more seriously about being more public about that advocacy, mainly because it seemed like there were so few people in the Church who were ready to take their side. Very few bishops in the U.S. said anything in terms of sympathy after this terrible shooting. Even in death, it seemed to me, these people were invisible to the Church. That led me to write “Building a Bridge,” a book that is very modest in scope, doesn’t challenge any Church teaching and had the approval of my Jesuit superiors. But it still caused a lot of controversy.  

But I’m happy to do this ministry, with the approval and the permission of my Jesuit superiors and with the support of the Holy Father.

Even in death, it seemed to me, these people were invisible to the Church. That led me to write “Building a Bridge,” a book that is very modest in scope, doesn’t challenge any Church teaching and had the approval of my Jesuit superiors.

My desire is for LGBTQ people to feel welcome in what is, after all, their own Church and for the Church to take steps to help them feel welcome. 

What is the feedback from members of this community? 

Well, the first edition of the book was short and simple. And after it came out, I had many good suggestions from LGBTQ people about how to make it better. For example, the first edition of “Building a Bridge” talks about the bridge between the institutional Church and the LGBTQ community and says that both sides must reach out with what the Catechism calls “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” I said that it was a “two-way bridge.”  

But I was challenged by many LGBTQ people who said it’s not an “even” or “balanced” bridge, because it is the Church that marginalized many of them, not the other way around. So, in the second edition, I said that the burden was on the institutional Church to reach out to that community.  

I try as much as I can to listen to LGBTQ Catholics and to learn from them, rather than just assuming I know what’s best for them. 

You also had a discussion with Pope Francis about this: Is the Church moving toward greater inclusion of LGBTQ+ people?  

Absolutely. Often, it’s two steps forward, one step back. But we have to remember how far we’ve come under Francis: 

Pope Francis is the first pope to ever use the word “gay” in public; he appointed an openly gay man to a high-level Vatican commission; he had warm words for an Argentine sister who ministers to transgender people; he has said that Jesus would never say “get away from me” to a gay person; he has told families never to kick out their LGBTQ children.

Pope Francis greets Jesuit Father James Martin, author and editor at large of America magazine, during a private meeting at the Vatican in this Oct. 1, 2019, file photo. Father Martin released a recent handwritten letter from the pope that commended his LGBT ministry. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Recently, in a talk to Slovakian Jesuits, he talked about pastoral care for homosexual couples — not just individuals, but couples. This is a huge change, though Francis likes to do these things step-by-step. And in June, he sent me a letter supporting LGBTQ ministry, which I was allowed to publish.  Pope Francis has said and done so many things that have helped LGBTQ people feel comfortable and welcome in their Church.  

Pope Francis is the first pope to ever use the word “gay” in public; he appointed an openly gay man to a high-level Vatican commission; he had warm words for an Argentine sister who ministers to transgender people; he has said that Jesus would never say “get away from me” to a gay person; he has told families never to kick out their LGBTQ children.

At the same time, there are church leaders who aren’t as welcoming and who have said pretty hateful and homophobic things. It’s a struggle to encourage the Church to treat this group of people not only with the “respect, compassion and sensitivity” called for by the Catechism, but with the love, mercy and compassion that Jesus showed to those who felt excluded. 

Is there a particular moment of consolation in your life that you think shapes the way you are? 

 Well, my meeting with Pope Francis in 2019 was really a highlight of my life, and I didn’t think I would ever have that opportunity. We spent 30 minutes talking about LGBTQ issues. He was very supportive and encouraged me to continue in my ministry. For me, it was life changing to know that he was supportive of this work. Every time I get discouraged, I think about that.  

Here’s how it happened. I’m a consultant for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, and I went to Rome for a plenary meeting of the Dicastery, and a mutual friend said: “Do you think you’d like to meet the pope?” And I said: “Sure, I’d be delighted.” And he wrote back and said: “The pope would like to meet you.”  

In any event, a few weeks later at an audience for the whole Dicastery, I introduced myself, and Pope Francis said: “I’d like to have an audience with you.” (At least that’s what I think he said. He said it in Spanish and all I heard was the word audiencia!)   

Two days later, I got an invitation, which was delivered to the Jesuit Curia. Funny enough, there was no RSVP. I said to a Jesuit there: “How do I let them know that I’m coming?” And he laughed and said: “Jim, they assume you’re going to come! They assume that you don’t have anything better to do at that time!”  

It was like a dream, really. And I was not nervous at all. It was like being with a Jesuit brother. Pope Francis put me at ease, and he was very easy to talk to. I felt completely relaxed, which was very strange because I thought I’d be tongue-tied and nervous. We laughed a lot, and he just could not have been warmer. It really was extraordinary to me. I’m thinking about it now and just remembering how welcome I felt and just how grateful I was and still am. 

At the end of the meeting, he asked me to continue my ministry “in peace.”  When I returned to the Curia, I mentioned that to someone, and he said, “The pope just gave you a new mission.”  And so I see that in the context of the Jesuit “fourth vow,” in service to the pope.   

Your commitment for LGBT people attracts a lot of support, but also some very vocal criticism (to put it nicely): How do you manage to continue your work under these conditions? How do you accept not being liked by everyone? 

The first thing is knowing that I do all this with the permission and approval of my Jesuit superiors and the support of the Holy Father — that gives me a great deal of confidence. 

So at every juncture, if I think that something is going to be in the least bit controversial, I let my superiors know. I see that as part of my vow of obedience. 

At the end of the meeting, he asked me to continue my ministry “in peace.”  When I returned to the Curia, I mentioned that to someone, and he said, “The pope just gave you a new mission.”  And so I see that in the context of the Jesuit “fourth vow,” in service to the pope.   

The second thing that helps is something that happened on a retreat a few years ago when I was praying over the Gospel story of the “Rejection at Nazareth,” where Jesus is rejected in his hometown. In my Ignatian contemplation during my retreat, I asked Jesus: “How were you able to do this? How were you able to stand up knowing that people would reject you?” And the words I heard in prayer were Jesus saying to me: “Must everyone like you?”  

I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think it was an invitation to let go of the need for everyone to love, like or approve of me. Once you’ve let go of that, you can be freer in what you do. I mean, obviously I listen to criticisms, and I respond to legitimate questions and critiques, but when it’s just hate and homophobia and people are calling me names and sending me death threats and articles are attacking me personally and saying I’m a heretic or an apostate or a false priest, I don’t think it really deserves much attention. 

So, the third thing is, I don’t pay too much attention to it. I ignore most of it. 

You write books on spirituality and prayer addressed not only to believers, but to all people. What motivates you to take the time to make spirituality accessible to all? 

Fr. Martin Urges Catholics to Examine Attitudes Toward LGBT Community

Because it’s what Jesus did. Jesus spoke in parables and stories that were drawn from nature and common life, to quote the famous definition from C.H. Dodd, the New Testament scholar. 

It was not beneath Jesus to invite people to understand spirituality in everyday ways, so it shouldn’t be beneath us. There’s no need for spirituality to be confusing.  

That’s one of the reasons I wrote my new book “Learning to Pray,” because many people, including many Catholics, think that prayer is not for them. But prayer is for everybody! And the book tries to make prayer accessible, inviting and even easy. 

And as much as the LGBT ministry is important to me, the ministry of spirituality is even more important. Of course, those two ministries are side by side with one another. 

Why stay in an institution, the Church, which today is questioned by many (over issues such as misogyny, abuse, residential schools, etc.)?  

For one thing, it is because I was baptized into it, which I consider of extreme importance. At our baptisms, God calls us into the Church. Second, the Church is my family: I don’t see it as a political organization or even a social organization. I certainly wouldn’t leave simply because there are problems. Third, because the Church has always been full of sinful people. Look at St. Peter, by tradition the first pope, who denied even knowing Jesus during the crucifixion. Fourth, that it’s important to help the Church change.

But maybe the best answer is that I’ve made all these promises: I took vows as a Jesuit and made promises as a priest, so I’m not going anywhere.  

I’ll tell you a story that I always come back to. I often share it with young Jesuits. 

There was an elderly Jesuit in our community named John Donohue, who I greatly admired and who has since died. One day a notice from the province went up on the bulletin board in our Jesuit community. It was about an upcoming province meeting, where we were going to discuss Jesuit life.  

John glared at this notice on the board, and he said: “Look at this question that they’re asking us to think about.” And I read the question, which was: “What keeps you in the Society of Jesus?” And I thought that was a reasonable question. John looked at me and said: “What keeps me in the Society of Jesus? I made a promise to God that I would stay in the Society of Jesus!”  

And I said to him, “Well, John, I think what they mean is what helps you to stay.” And he said: “That’s a different question.”  

I think about that all the time; I’ve made a promise to God. So, I’m not going anywhere. 

You are probably one of the most popular Jesuits after Pope Francis: How do you manage to bear the pressure? What do you do as a hobby? 

Oh, it’s not much pressure at all. I don’t think about it too much. I just do my job and I’m still there. Life keeps me humble. Also, I’m not popular with everyone, as you noted! 

As for a hobby, we have a beautiful garden on the rooftop of our Jesuit community that I love spending time on. I’m the house gardener. The only challenge for me is not to put too many plants up there! Yesterday, my superior said, jokingly: “I’m a little worried there’s not enough room to walk!” So, I enjoy that. I enjoy spending time with friends, just going out to dinner. But I try to keep things simple. Besides, with a vow of poverty, you can’t do a whole lot of extravagant things! 

And finally, what are your next projects? 

Currently I’m working on a book on the raising of Lazarus, which I’m enjoying very much. 

And in terms of the LGBTQ ministry, I’ve been working on a website that’s going to be a resource for LGBTQ Catholics because there’s not much out there like it. At least that’s the hope!   

Watch Building a Bridge: The Catholic Church and the LGBT Community [VIDEO]

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LGBT Ministry in Canada

Based at Our Lady of Lourdes Jesuit Parish in Toronto, Canada, All Inclusive Ministries (AIM) is a welcoming, safe and affirming Catholic community. This ministry serves as a bridge between the Church and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. AIM hosts a monthly gathering where people have an opportunity to share their stories, connect with others and celebrate the sacraments. Other programming that AIM provides includes opportunities for community life, outreach, education and spiritual growth.

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Walking with People from the LGBT Community in Canada - The Example of Father Mongeau, SJ 

Since 2004, Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, has been working with school boards, offering formation on welcoming and accompanying LGBTQ+ teens in Catholic high schools, based on the pastoral guidelines of the Ontario bishops. These formation session target three levels of intervention: school administration (the creation of a healthy, safe and supportive environment), teachers (the communication of Church teaching) and pastoral workers (chaplains and priests engaged in the ministry of welcome as well as in pastoral and spiritual care). This type of formation helps schools and others involved with youth to understand the

human, psychological, sociocultural and religious/spiritual dimensions of welcoming and accompanying LGBTQ+ youth and to develop policies that are healthy, just and Gospel-based.

Fr. Mongeau has provided spiritual accompaniment to LGBTQ+ people since 1993. He also coordinated a Mass for people living with HIV/AIDS and was chaplain for AIM for several years. 

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