As the pastor of a Mennonite church, people are often surprised by how often I quote Catholic sources. Yet, they have played an important part of my faith journey, as I suspect they will continue to do. Chief among those influences is Father James Martin, SJ, who often popularly known outside of his tradition for being a regular guest on satirical news program The Colbert Report. His book “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (Harper One., 2010) remains a favorite in my church community. I have read almost every book he has written.
So I was especially excited (and somewhat nervous) when I learned about his forthcoming new book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” (HarperOne, June 13, 2017). Fr. Martin has been a vocal advocate for better understanding and relationships with the LGBTQ+ community, both those who are Christian and otherwise- an advocacy that often resulted in him receiving the brunt of anger from people on both sides of the issue. Therefore, his willingness to put himself out there in this way is admirable.
It is important that non-Catholics remember the primary context that the book was written from and to: the Catholic Church. As a progressive Anabaptist (for lack of a better term), there were times that I felt the book didn’t go nearly far enough- a critique I would stand by. However, I temper that critique with the understanding of the realities and limitations under which the book was written. Fr. Martin is, after all, a Jesuit priest, meaning that he has devoted himself to obedience to his superiors. Given that, the book is far bolder and more prophetic than it might seem to non-Catholic Christians.
On the other hand, other Christians may find his perspective to be too accommodating, too compromising. These are the Christians who need this book the most. The grace and humility with which he writes this book is a big step in the right direction. I hope you will read it and consider the important call to love he invites us all to follow.
I was excited to interview Fr. Jim again. I hope you find this interview and the book helpful:
Jamie Arpin-Ricci: There are few topics more heated in religious circles than on sexuality and sexual identity. Why did you decide to write this book at this time?
Fr. James Martin SJ: For several years, I’ve engaged in what you might call “informal” ministry with LGBT Catholics. That is, it’s not been anything “formal” in terms of, say, working in outreach programs in parishes or dioceses, but instead people have simply come to me for spiritual counseling, confession and conversation. At the same time, I’ve written occasionally on this topic, and have tried to be supportive to the community in that way as well. But after the massacres at the gay nightclub in Orlando last year , I felt it was a good time, a kairos moment, to be more public about my advocacy for this group within our church. So when New Ways Ministry, a group that works with LGBT Catholics, asked me to accept their “Building Bridges award last year, I agreed, and the talk that I gave at the award ceremony forms the basis of this book.
JAR: While this book is written with the Roman Catholic Church in mind, would other Christian traditions/communities benefit from this book? How so?
JM: Yes, I hope they would. Much of the book has to do with understanding Jesus’s ministry to those who felt marginalized or excluded. I use several passages from the Gospels to help people meditate on how Jesus’s ministry was about inclusion. And how for Jesus there is no “us” and “them.” There is only us. So a great deal of this book is applicable to all Christian denominations.
JAR: What do you think the biggest barriers are for Christians to enter into conversation with the LGBT community?
JM: Homophobia, misunderstanding, a lack of openness. And, in my experience, some Christians still do not know LGBT people who are public about their sexuality. Or if they do, they feel that they must condemn them before listening to their experiences. But as I say in the book, this is, more often than not, the opposite of what Jesus does. Time and again Jesus meets people outside of the “comfort zone” for Jews of his time–the Roman centurion, Zacchaeus the tax collector, the woman at the well–and listens to them. Also, too many Christians are eager to judge, even though Jesus said, “Judge not.” So until we decide that we’re actually going to listen, and listen with as much compassion as Jesus did, the barriers will remain. But as Pope Francis says, a good Christian builds bridges not walls.
JAR: The working analogy of the book is “a two-way bridge”. How would you respond to those who worry that such an analogy might not recognize the power difference between the two named groups, “the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community”?
JM: I’m very explicit in the book that it is the institutional church that operates from the position of power, and that the onus is mainly on the institutional church to do the outreach. By the same token, those virtues of “respect, compassion and sensitivity” can be used by all Christians, LGBT Catholics included, when dealing with people with whom they may feel in conflict.
JAR: Where do we go from here? As we foster a mutually respectful, compassionate, and sensitive relationship, what might both groups hope for?
JM: My hope is that the next step will be real listening. On both sides, but especially bishops, priests and other church leaders, lay and clergy, listening to the experiences of LGBT Catholics. They might ask: “What was it like growing up as an LGBT person? What is your life like now? What has your experience of the church been? Have you ever felt unwelcome? What do you hope for, long for, pray for?” But listening is the first step. Listening is key.
JAR: What’s next for you in your writing life?
JM: A book on prayer. Which will be much less controversial–I hope!
JAR: Thank you for your time and all you do in ministry.