Jesus advised us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), which is one of my favorite passages since I find it so useful. Still, when I share this with others, they wince and grow uncomfortable. Who wants to be like a serpent? Isn’t he the one who began our problem in the Garden? I suppose we prefer seeing ourselves as doves. But Jesus prefaced the advice by saying his followers were being sent into the world “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Acting like an innocent dove facing a pack of wolves is not good advice—for us or for sheep.
A recent interview with Father James Martin, S.J., which ran in Religion Dispatches, reminded me of this wonderful Christ-like balance. In the introduction to the interview, journalist Kaya Oakes writes, “A few years ago, the idea of a ‘celebrity Jesuit’ would have puzzled most Americans. That was not only before the election of the first Jesuit pope, but also before Fr. James Martin began appearing on The Colbert Report, and before his books on saints, spirituality, and prayer ascended the bestseller lists. Today, Martin occupies a unique place in religious media: still working a day job as the editor-at-large of America magazine, he’s also become a go-to explainer of Catholic issues to both religious and secular audiences. He’s so successful in this role that in April of this year, he took up yet another job when he was invited by Pope Francis to be a consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications.”
Let’s pause and unpack that a bit. How does a Catholic priest become the “go-to explainer” of Catholic and Christian issues to many of the top newspapers and news shows? Many bishops and cardinals would be happy to explain such matters. So why do journalists seek out an “editor at large” at a small Jesuit magazine? Some might think that they do so because Father Martin (who insists we call him Jim) tells them what they want to hear: a progressive and liberal slant on Catholic issues. But that doesn’t work, because it fails to note how Jim is also applauded and supported and sought after by conservative Catholics across the country. I have seen many hundreds of Catholics line up to get him to sign their books. (Helping out in those lines is not fun, since Jim insists on talking to each person and always says yes when asked if it is okay if his “assistant” takes a picture). There is no doubt that these people are proud of their priest. No, there needs to be a better explanation for how Jim has become a top spokesman for both the general media and the church world.
The best answer is, I think, shrewdness. Anyone who thinks what Jim does is easy or mere “popularization” is not speaking from experience. Explaining and defending Catholic beliefs and practices to a secular and politically correct world in a way that is accessible, whimsical, and compelling is a high art. And doing it in a way where even the Vatican applauds is a rare skill indeed.
The other best explanation for Jim’s effectiveness, besides the sheer genius of his strategic and shrewd dexterity, is the dove half of the formula. Spend time with Jim Martin and it becomes clear that his fundamental drive is for people to connect with God and know Jesus. Period. He is not primarily heading a faction or leading a cause or defending an institution. He sincerely wants everyone, including those outside the walls of the church as well as those inside, to be healed and made whole by encountering God—which could be described as the work of a saint, as long as that is understood as working in the midst of the nitty gritty of real life.
And nothing gets more nitty gritty than stepping into the tension between the Catholic hierarchy and the LGBT community, which Jim has done in his latest book Building a Bridge. Kaya Oakes again: “Martin describes an ‘informal ministry’ [to the LQBT community] conducted through articles, conversations, and social media, and it expanded after the June 2016 shooting in Orlando, Florida when Martin was dismayed that Catholic church leaders failed to acknowledge the targeting of LGBT people in the Pulse massacre. His Facebook video posted the day after Orlando has over a million and a half views [and eventually led to his latest book]. At a time when Catholic school teachers and lay ministers are still regularly being fired for being LGBT, endorsements from church higher-ups for a book that advocates pastoral outreach to LGBT Catholics comes as a surprise. But it’s also indicative of Martin’s unique position in the church: respected by everyone from Vatican officials to activist women to religious and secular journalists to his massive social media following, he may actually be in a position to gently influence the way LGBT people are treated by the institutional church.”
More unpacking: In a book that does not question official church teachings, Jim has managed to pen a revolutionary pamphlet that reminds everyone that there is no “us vs. them” in Jesus or that we are not expressing the gospel when we treat one another as “the enemy.” Conservative Catholics might not enjoy the criticism, but they can’t dismiss the book as merely a liberal argument, nor would it be easy to disregard that the basic impulse powering the book so obviously reflects Jesus’s heart. Progressives might be disappointed that Jim did not “prophetically” and explicitly challenge Catholic teachings, but they cannot question the wisdom of transcending factionalism or the reminder that the church is more than the hierarchy or political blocks.
In other words, Building a Bridge is a wonderful illustration of Matthew 10:16. I hope you enjoy it.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor
PS: We’re currently offering a special promotion on James Martin’s books. CLICK HERE to learn more.