By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
Father James Martin, SJ, is one of America’s most famous Catholic priests—known for such a hearty sense of humor that he wrote an entire book about holy mirth and appeared several times on The Colbert Report. But in late 2016, Martin is deadly serious about one thing: the need to restore civility and balance to our public discourse.
As usual, he has high hopes.
Martin sees inspiration in a host of unfolding events he’s spotted around the world. This is the 10th anniversary of his memoir-and-overview-of-sacred-heroes, called My Life with the Saints. He’s justifiably proud that this volume has sold an astonishing 200,000-plus copies. That’s the territory of blockbuster mystery novels! He takes inspiration from his discovery that at least some of his readers are teenagers who regard the saints as guides for their own lives. That’s the territory of YA books like Hunger Games and Harry Potter. And Martin also is proud this month of the way Pope Francis is welcoming the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation as an opportunity for religious reconciliation. That’s—well, that’s historically unprecedented!
Finally, he’s pleased to see a generally favorable view of the Catholic church emerging in popular culture today. Why?
“I can describe that changing public attitude toward the Church in three words: Francis. Francis. Francis,” Martin says in a new interview with ReadTheSpirit.
(NOTE TO READERS: He also visited our magazine earlier this year to talk about his book on Lent. This is a perfect time to pick up a copy of that book as a holiday gift for a friend who will be observing Lent in the new year. His other visits to our magazine have included this interview about his book From Heaven to Mirth, and also this column about his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage.)
FRANCIS RESHAPING THE CATHOLIC STORY
Worldwide, the public image of the Catholic church has shifted dramatically since the election of Pope Fancis in the spring of 2013. This isn’t merely Martin’s opinion. The Pew Research Center found dramatic change in a survey after the pope’s visit to the U.S. a year ago. At that time, Pew found attitudes shifting particularly among self-identified American “liberals” and “moderates,” groups that had been more critical of the papacy. Pew reported in part:
Nearly four-in-ten liberals (39%) say they have a more positive view of the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis, dwarfing the 4% of liberals who say they have a more negative view of the church. And among ideological moderates, 31% say their view of the Catholic Church has improved because of Pope Francis, while only 5% of moderates say their view of the church has become more negative.
As Editor at Large for America magazine, Martin writes regularly about the Catholic church’s role in the world. He’s seen this shift in attitudes in his own travels.
“I think the image of Catholic priests has changed,” Martin says. “To put it simply, the focus in American media has changed from, let’s say, 2002—when it was all about news of priest pedophiles—to 2016—when it’s all about, ‘We love your pope!’ That doesn’t mean it’s a shift in the church’s image across the board—and it doesn’t mean the sex-abuse crisis is behind us—but Pope Francis clearly has captured the imagination of the world.”
SAINTS GO MARCHING IN
This shift in attitude is broader than Francis—and, again, Martin’s experience is evidence. When he published My Life with the Saints a decade ago, he expected a successful book. He had written or edited a number of well-received books over the years. But he had no idea these stories of saints, coupled with his own personal reflections, would soar past the 100,000-copy best-seller mark and go on to top 200,000 copies sold.
Five years later in 2011, he added another book heavily drawing on stories of saints in relation to a theme he especially loves: the value of laughter in spiritual life.
Doubling the best-seller mark as Martin did with his 2006 book is a milestone most authors will only ever dream of achieving. Why did that book catch fire?
“The first reason is: It’s the work of the Spirit,” says Martin. “The second reason might be that people were ready for real lives of the saints, not lives of the saints told in a legendary way. The real life is more interesting than the legend.”
Martin is referring to centuries-old volumes of hagiography, better known as “lives of the saints,” that are available in popular editions to this day. In that genre, the saints often suffer gruesome challenges to their faith, perform miracles and emerge after death with blessings for their various patrons. Martin’s book is different. He does include Joan of Arc, who suffered horrendous torture, as well as officially canonized figures. But he also includes men and women he hopes will someday be canonized by the church. It’s a contemporary spiritual window into the realm of spiritual heroes.
“I think the third reason that book did so well is that it’s a very honest and personal book,” Martin says. “And it’s organized around the trajectory of my own spiritual life as I encountered these saints. The book invites readers to find their way into the lives of the saints with me.”
One of Martin’s most startling discoveries was the book’s appeal among teenagers. “The book caught on with parish reading groups and individual readers who enjoy spiritual books—traditional ways books like this are read. But I remember visiting Boston College High School, where I found that a French class had read the lives of Joan of Arc, Therese of Liseux and Bernadette Soubirous from my book. Then, the students wrote essays in French about their lives.
“That totally blew me away! These were high school juniors who actually were interested in these lives! What I had forgotten was that all of these saints were very young. It was exciting to discover these young people making new connections with these saints.”
Martin believes that, like Francis’s influence on the Church’s public image, the canonization of Mother Teresa—and the volumes of her own writings that have appeared since her death—have shifted the public image of saints.
“We literally put saints on pedestals,” says Martin. “We certainly do that in churches and we do something similar in our own assumptions about them. We think that saints must have led perfect lives. They were totally consoled by God whenever they needed it. But that’s not the case. Many saints really struggled with this and Teresa revealed that in her writings. We know that she spent many, many years living her life on an empty spiritual tank. She was honest about this and that makes her example all the more inspiring to people.”
A CALL FOR CIVILITY, RECONCILIATION
Once again, Martin says, Pope Francis is showing the world a dramatic, personal example of reconciliation in his approach to the dawn of the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation. (Here is an earlier column about the Reformation milestone in our magazine.)
“It’s a great moment for reconciliation,” Martin says. “For Francis to go to Sweden at the start of the anniversary year and have a joint prayer service with the Lutheran church—and then hug the female Lutheran Archbishop Antje Jackelén—it’s all a great sign of reconciliation. Then, to talk about moving toward a shared Eucharist! Both churches have been moving together for many years. The Protestant world is becoming more liturgical; and the Catholic world is becoming more scriptural. I think this is all fantastic!”
Martin also is modeling this reconciliation by contributing a foreword to historian Martin Marty’s excellent overview of the most famous milestone in Reformation history.
(NOTE TO READERS: You may think you’ve had your fill of books—or films or documentaries—about the Reformation. But, Marty’s book is a smart, concise overview and Martin uses his foreword to correct some mistaken impressions about that era as well. ReadTheSpirit recommends this book along with the other James Martin titles we’ve shown, above. The Reformation anniversary year is just beginning—the October 31, 1517, book could make a timely holiday gift for someone interested in religion and history.)
This is in keeping with Martin’s consistent approach in all of his public appearances—whether writing for America magazine, publishing books or presenting workshops and public talks. For journalists and for religious leaders, he says, honesty, balance and civility remain essential values. Although Martin prefers to avoid political commentary, he does stress that these values are especially needed after the fury of the 2016 political campaigns in the U.S.
“This year, the level of insults, hate speech and invective have been profoundly depressing for most Americans—at least I hope that’s the case. I hope people aren’t delighting in this,” Martin says. “I’ve found the toxic language shocking. This has lowered our standards to the point where I wonder how long it’s going to take for us to recover.”
Journalists should model a civil approach to public discourse, Martin says. “I realize that I’m a public figure and I’m very careful about what I say. I want to ensure that what I’m saying is always accurate and charitable and helpful for people.”
As a Christian, Martin says, “I think of Matthew 5:22, where Jesus says that you may get angry at people but the worst thing you can do is call someone a fool, which I read as ‘engage in hate speech.’ If you do that, Jesus says, you’re going to Hell. Jesus says that so clearly in the Gospel, but many people just blithely ignore that.”
Going forward, Martin advises, “We need to remember that we can be charitable in presenting our views. We can give people the benefit of the doubt. We shouldn’t engage in hate speech, or insults, or name-calling—even though that may be difficult in this era of social media. I think that, if we remember to do these things, we can’t go wrong.”