interview with James Martin, SJ

John Rose, SJ

Fr. James Martin, SJ is a well-known American Jesuit and a best-selling author. His activities range from being the Editor-at-Large of America magazine to a leader of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. He is on the speakers’ circuit, often on TV talk shows, consulter for stage and film productions. His advocacy of LBGT rights won him a private audience with Pope Francis as well as much criticism from conservative Catholics. For an exclusive interview for INI, Fr. James Martin spoke to John Rose, SJ, a member of INI’s Editorial Board:


Fr. James, you started adult life in the corporate world.  What made you give up the good job you had and become a Jesuit?

After six years working in the corporate world, I realized that I was in the wrong place.  Business is a real vocation for many people, but it no longer seemed to “fit” me.  But at the time I wasn’t sure what else I would do in life, since I had studied business as an undergraduate.  One night I came home and saw a documentary on Thomas Merton, which captivated me.  I went out and purchased his autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” and his way of life seemed so beautiful to me.  But even then I knew that monastic life wasn’t for me; I’m just too talkative and too restless.  Eventually I stumbled upon the Jesuits and that fit very well. 

How about vocations to the Society now in the U.S.? Are there a sufficient number of vocations?

It’s true that vocations have been slowly declining, despite some occasional upticks.  But as Father General says in his new book “Walking with Ignatius,” it’s not a question of numbers, but about quality.  That is, the quality of the men that we are accepting.  Also, we are now fully companions in mission (or partners in mission, depending on the country), with our lay colleagues in our institutions.  Yes, it’s important to have Jesuit vocations and Jesuits in our ministries, but there is also the broader Ignatian charism, which is meant for everyone – Jesuits, other religious, and lay colleagues alike.  But obviously I still pray for vocations! 

Will a change in the rule of celibacy increase the number of vocations?

The rule could be changed for diocesan or secular priests. Of course, there are former Anglicans and other priests who remain married when they enter the Catholic Church. We have Eastern rites where priests are married.  But for members of religious orders, chastity is essential, I believe, especially in terms of life in a community setting. 

But even then I knew that monastic life wasn’t for me; I’m just too talkative and too restless.  Eventually I stumbled upon the Jesuits and that fit very well.  

You wrote a book called ‘The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything’. What do you think makes Jesuits respond to the challenges of today’s world?

Jesus Christ does!  He asks us in the Gospels to go into the “whole world” (more accurately, into “all creation”) and proclaim the Gospel.  So we must engage with all the challenges of the world, just as he did and just as his disciples did.  There’s a reason that one of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council is called The Church in the Modern World.  Not “above” “over” or “against,” but “in.”   

The very first of Jesuits’ Universal Apostolic Preferences is “Showing the way to God.”  Is this possible? Does whatever we do – retreats, talks, books – make a realistic impact intoday’s world? 

Our first goal as Jesuits is, as St. Ignatius Loyola says over and over in our documents, to “help souls.”  That means in the first place helping people encounter God in their own lives.  And God always makes a realistic impact once people are introduced to God. 

Your most recent book is on prayer. Tell us how you pray and what it does for you.

It does everything.  Mainly my prayer is contemplative in the morning and then the examination of conscience, a review of the day, at night.  Of course, I celebrate Mass daily.  Prayer helps me to be, and helps me to feel, more connected with God.  Without it, I’d be lost.

Prayer helps me to be, and helps me to feel, more connected with God.  Without it, I’d be lost.

You are a priest, and so have priestly ministries. You are editor at large for America magazine. You write books, articles and blogs. You give TV interviews and even lead pilgrimages. How do you manage it all?

With some difficulty!  I try to be as responsive as I can to as many people as I can.  But sometimes I have to say “no.”  It can feel overwhelming at times, but again, I’m doing it all for Jesus Christ.  Also, on a more practical note, I learned a lot about efficiency and hard work from my parents, from school and from the corporate world. 

You have been both praised and criticized for your ministry with the LGBT people. We heard you met Pope Francis and he encouraged you to continue this ministry. What about your Jesuit superiors?

My ministry with LGBTQ people is essentially to help the Church reach out to this often rejected and excluded group of Catholics, and to treat them, as the Catechism says, with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”  More fundamentally, to treat them with the love, mercy and compassion of Jesus.  And it’s important to say that I do all of this always seeking approval from my Jesuit superiors.  And recently, yes,  I’ve received some wonderful public support from the Holy Father.  So it’s all done within the Church and within my Jesuit vocation. 

Does homosexuality have a genetic origin or is opted for in adult life due to psychological causes?

Scientists and psychologists seem to agree that it’s a combination of causes, but that most of it seems genetic.  Whatever the causes may be, people don’t “choose” it, nor should they be “converted” from it.  It’s who they are, and we have to love them as they are.  They are God’s beloved children, aren’t they?  They should be treated as such.  

Can the Conservatives and the Liberals – in the world and in the Church – be reconciled? Can they ever come together for the good of the Church, their country and the world?

One could say that they already do at the Eucharist.  But I understand the question.  The Church is tremendously divided, especially in my own country.  But divisions in the Church are nothing new. Look at Peter and Paul. But I do think reconciliation is possible. The key is for both sides to take the other side seriously, and for both sides to stop condemning.  That’s essential, as I see it. 

What has happened in the U.S. – especially in the Western States – in the past year and other countries – unprecedented heat waves, wild fires, drought, water shortage, floods – make it clear that climate change is real and has disastrous consequences. Do the American Jesuits play a role in working for protecting our planet?

Climate change is real.  In fact, I’m writing these lines the day after a terrible hurricane swept through the Southern U.S. and caused tornadoes in the north, in places that had never seen them before.  “Laudato Si” points us forward and the U.S. Jesuits are committed to following that encyclical, and to following science as well.  All of our other concerns would seem to pale before it, wouldn’t they?  After all, if we don’t have a world to live in, we don’t have a Church.