Building a Bridge Between the Church and the LGBT Community: An Interview with Fr. James Martin

This month, Fr. James Martin released Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, called it “a welcome and much-needed book that will help bishops, priests, pastoral associates, and all church leaders, more compassionately minister to the LGBT community.” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said it “provides us the language, perspective, and sense of urgency to undertake the arduous but monumentally Christlike task of replacing a culture of alienation with a culture of merciful inclusion.”

Christopher White has a good interview with Fr. Martin at Crux, and Jesuitical has another good one—which together provide a helpful overview of the central themes in the book. Below, you can find Millennial editor Robert Christian’s interview with Fr. James Martin on some key issues from the book and other issues the book raises:

So many millennials have grown up with friends or family members who are openly gay and the treatment of these friends and family members is very important to them, as of course, it deeply matters to gay, lesbian, and transgender young people. What do you think the type of bridge building that you describe in the book would mean for millennials (in general) and their relationship with the Church?

What you described is one of the most surprising things for me, as I gain more experience with LGBT ministry.  First of all, the more people who are open about their sexuality and identity, the more Catholics will be impacted—families and friends of LGBT people.  So it’s a much broader issue than I had imagined.

But the other surprise has been precisely what you describe: for most millennials the question of LGBT acceptance is virtually a non-issue.  Most millennials I know say, “Of course I accept them!  Of course I love them!  Of course they belong in the Church!”  And they are often appalled at the language they hear coming from church officials.  Some of them have told me that one reason they’ve left the Church is over this topic—even if they’re straight.  So the bridge that I describe—bringing together LGBT Catholics and the institutional church—is for some of them the last causeway to the Church.  Otherwise, they don’t want to be a part of a church that they feel is either homophobic or in any way unwelcoming.

How should the bishops respond to the far-right groups that hunt down gay employees at Catholic institutions in order to pressure these institutions to fire them?

First of all, I’m clear in the book that I don’t think church organizations should be firing LGBT employees.  For the simple reason that the requirement to adhere to Church teaching seems to be applied only to them.  We don’t fire divorced and remarried Catholics who have not gotten annulments, or women who have children out of wedlock, or people who use birth control, which are all against Church teaching.  The question of adherence to Church teachings is enforced in a highly selective way, which is, to my mind, a sign of what the Catechism calls “unjust discrimination.”

And regarding the far-right groups that, as you rightly say, “hunt down” LGBT employees?  I think the bishops should ignore them.  These groups, often very minuscule in terms of membership, are usually less concerned about an overall application of Church teaching—after all, when did they hunt someone down for not serving the poor, for not being forgiving, for not being a loving person?—than with simply ferreting out and persecuting LGBT people.   I find their tactics reprehensible.

I think you make a very persuasive case for using terms like gay and lesbian rather than more formal terms “homosexual persons,” but should there be limits to how much the Church—from its pastors to its formal documents—affirms the use of other terms like pansexual or polysexual? At any point does a certain expressive individualism, in terms of boundaryless self-identification, collide with the Church’s understanding of the nature of the human person in a way that merits drawing distinctions among the various terms used in the LGBT community?

That’s a good question.  Our most fundamental identity is as beloved children of God, baptized Christians, and members of the Catholic Church.  All of that precedes sexual identity and orientation.  As for the use of particular terms, I know this is a hotly contested question.  The acronym LGBTQ seems to change almost weekly.  In fact, just last night I asked a gay man and a lesbian woman about this phenomenon and they both said, “We can’t keep up with all the changes.” So we are seeing a revolution in the way that people understand and identify themselves.  But nothing of the human experience should be foreign to the Church, and so the Church needs to meditate deeply on this aspect of human experience.  At the same time, our fundamental identities as children of God, baptized Christians, and members of the Catholic Church need to be held onto.

But I’ll be honest: I don’t think I understand enough about the fluidity of sexuality, or the ins and outs of psychology, or the current terminology, to be able to pronounce on that question with any confidence. My basic attitude though is that when confronted with something you don’t understand in a person’s life, you are called to listen to their experiences, see it in the light of the Gospels and Church teaching, and then come to some understanding of how to accompany this person.  But first comes listening.

Same sex marriage is now a fundamental issue for the LGBT community. Does the Church’s position on it create a wall that makes certain bridge building impossible or extremely difficult to achieve?

Not as I see it.  You’re correct in saying that this is a barrier to bridge building.  The institutional church and much of the LGBT community are miles apart on this.  The same is true for the Church’s prohibition on same-sex relations (that is, the Church’s teaching on sexual activity between people of the same sex).  For the Church, it is simply impermissible, for the LGBT community, simply a given.

So yes, it’s something of a barrier.  But I prefer to focus on the areas of commonality: the desire to conform one’s life to Christ, the desire to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, the desire for Christian community.  And the first steps I’m asking for, “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” virtues outlined in the Catechism, call mainly for an open heart.  That’s something I think everyone can carry along, as they walk along the bridge.

The call for the Church to do more about violence directed at people in the LGBT community, in places like Chechnya and Uganda, for instance, and the bullying, depression, and suicide rates here in US seems like a critical starting point. In practical terms, what can the Church—its people and the hierarchy—do on these issues?     

First of all, speak up.  The Gospels impel us to stand with those who are being persecuted in any way.  I don’t know how much clearer Jesus could be: he sided with those who were on the margins.  Catholic social teaching urges us to understand the meaning of “solidarity.”  And the Catechism asks us to resist any forms of “unjust discrimination” directed against LGBT people.  So in places where LGBT people are being actively persecuted, the Church should stand with them, publicly.  Other issues can clearly be seen in the light of Church teaching.  What is suicide among gay teens other than a “life issue”?

So we need to make LGBT people feel visible and valuable. We need to let them know that they are beloved children of God who are as much a part of the church as the pope, their local bishop, and me.  We need to listen to them and enter the mystery of their lives.  We need to accompany them.  We need to stick up for them when needed.  We need to be compassionate to them.  And we need to let them evangelize us.  In a word, we need to love them.


Revitalizing Catholic Culture: An Interview with Anna Keating

dsfafdsfdAnna Keating is a blogger, writer, small business owner, and mother of two. She’s the co-author, along with Melissa Musick, of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide To the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life. You can read an excerpt from the book here and Millennial’s review of the book here. The following is an interview with Anna Keating by Millennial editor Robert Christian:

Robert Christian (RC): The idea of a field guide to the daily acts of a Catholic life seems premised on the need for instruction or guidance in the absence of a robust Catholic culture where such traditions would be passed down orally or in another more organic way. What do you think has been lost with the collapse of this culture in certain areas or simply its absence in other areas?

Anna Keating (AK): I grew up a few blocks from my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1918 in Tulia, Texas. She called people “good ole boys” in her Southern accent, and said things like “She took to him like a sick kitten to a hot brick.” My grandmother died a few years ago, and I’m already starting to forget her sayings. If you don’t use the language, or record it, it’s lost. It happens very fast. That’s what’s happening with our faith. We don’t know the words or the works. We don’t remember how our grandmother used to braid those palms on Palm Sunday, or what braiding them was all about, or why our aunt was always making sick people casseroles. It’s vanishing.

Many of us didn’t grow up with these customs, with this way of seeing the world, even if we grew up Catholic. Stumbling upon this ancient way of life in this book, or elsewhere, is almost like discovering a foreign country.

Of course, we don’t want to idealize the past. Part of why American Catholic culture was more robust in the early and mid 20th century was because of Nativism. The KKK burned a cross in my great grandfather’s front yard because he was Catholic immigrant. We held onto our beliefs, in part, because of persecution and ghettoization.

Now we face the opposite problem of being mainstreamed. The faith gets boiled down. Reduced to a couple of bullet points. We live in an increasingly homogenized world. I’m intrigued by these ancient Christian habits, but often have no idea where to begin.

fsadfsdaThat’s why my coauthor, Melissa Musick, and I, wanted to write a resource that met people where they were (spiritual but not religious, Catholic, ex-Catholic, Protestant, agnostic). We wanted the book to be a field guide, an open window, a way in. Just pick one thing that resonates with you and try it. And then one thing leads to another, and another, and so on.

RC: Do you think there are particular challenges and/or opportunities when it comes to millennials and the revival of Catholic cultural practices? 

AK: As a generation, we’re uncomfortable with truth claims and mysteries. There aren’t many grand narratives anymore, except the ones that are so ubiquitous as to be invisible to us (e.g. utilitarianism).

We pick and choose from various moralities and symbol systems, but we tend not to put down roots. It’s an awful burden, in a way, to have an endless number of choices, especially when you don’t have any formative experiences with any of them and aren’t well informed about what it is you’re accepting or rejecting.

Sometimes we choose not to choose, out of the fear that picking a path and walking it will limit us in some way.

But I also think Millennials want to dive in, to taste and see, to feel alive, even if that means making sacrifices.

We’ve gone so far in the opposite direction (individualism, consumerism, nihilistic tendencies) that we’re ripe for a renewal. Millennials want more than nice stuff and endless distractions. They want love, meaning and purpose.

And they’re interested in rediscovering beautiful practices. Growing real food. Walkable neighborhoods. Religious life. Working with their hands. Buying local. Sacred art and architecture. Chant. Contemplation and meditation. Marian devotions. Jesus. Helping the poor and the environment. Social action. Building community. Nonviolence.

ewrqrOf course, being different can be unappealing. It’s natural to want to be accepted and well liked. And to love anything is to risk being misunderstood or mocked, or put in a box. Wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd”?

People have told me my shoes were cool, or that owning a small business was cool, or that my kids were great, but no one has ever told me that being a Catholic is cool. They’ve seen certain practices and found them compelling, but they could do without the label. But even that can be liberating. If you’re someone like me who suffers from the disease of caring too much about what other people think, it’s good to cultivate a healthy detachment, to, humbly and with a sense of humor, walk your path. Read More


The Tweetable Pope: An Interview with Michael O’Loughlin

PicMonkey CollageThe Tweetable Pope by Michael O’Loughlin, the national reporter for Crux, is an excellent new book that focuses on the content, context, and impact of Pope Francis’ use of the social media platform Twitter. O’Loughlin devotes chapters to the various themes found in Francis’ tweets, from prayer to suffering to pro-life issues to inequality. For those who follow Francis closely on twitter, the layout and analysis offer an excellent reflection on Francis’ key themes and serve as a reminder of some of his powerful words that may have been forgotten. For those who do not follow Francis closely on twitter (or at all), there should be enough in the book to motivate that person to create a twitter account or stay up to date on the pope’s latest tweets. These readers will get a close look at Francis’ extraordinary power to condense powerful messages into clear, compact tweets that resonate with people across the globe.

Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed O’Loughlin on The Tweetable Pope:

Do you think Twitter (or social and digital media, more broadly) is changing the way people practice their faith?

A tool like anything else, social media can help people practice their faith or distract them from it. There are lots of spirituality-themed podcasts (I like the Jesuit’s Pray as You Go, for example) and many faith leaders publish inspiring, thoughtful, and challenging “micro-sermons” on Twitter. Pope Francis is especially good at this, hence my idea for “The Tweetable Pope.”

You devote a chapter to work, which seems to be a central theme in Francis’ thought. Why do you think Pope Francis places this emphasis on work and links it so closely to human dignity?

Yeah, the pope tweets a lot about work, especially a lack of meaningful opportunities for young people to “earn their bread,” as he puts it. It comes from his experience of living with the poor in Buenos Aires and from the high number of unemployed young people he now sees in Europe. Anyone who’s ever been out of work knows how difficult it is – materially and spirituality – and so Francis hammers away at his belief that the economy’s got to work for people, not the other way around. Read More


Henri Nouwen, Encounter, and Communion: Walk with Jesus and Adam: God’s Beloved

When I received the 25th anniversary edition of Walk with Jesus in the mail, I was already reading another book by Fr. Henri Nouwen, Adam: God’s Beloved. Together, these books illuminate Nouwen’s vision of a more loving society in a broken world. They help to explore and explain the spiritual depth that should animate the Christian worldview.

In Walk with Jesus, we see the Christocentric approach of Nouwen immediately. The cross is what allows us to see sorrow and suffering and yet remain hopeful and to not give in to despair. It is “in and through Jesus” and divine love that our world can achieve communion and become one.

In the book, Nouwen reflects on pictures of the Stations of the Cross, drawn by Sr. Helen David. He connects them to the suffering and injustice in the world he knew. Nouwen does not see this suffering as a barrier to communion. Instead by entering into the wounded world and experiencing and empathizing with the suffering of others, we are transformed and unity becomes more possible.

But it is only when we step outside of ourselves and stop clinging to our desire for self-sufficiency and autonomy that this real experience of community becomes possible. We must recognize our own weaknesses, failures, and dependencies to become vulnerable in a way that allows for greater communion. Read More


A Faithful Guide: A review of Jesus: A Pilgrimage by Fr. James Martin, SJ

“I think he said to follow the stones…painted purple?” After several fruitless inquiries, Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, and fellow pilgrim, Fr. George Williams, SJ, finally had their first promising lead on how to find the so-called “Bay of Parables,” a site on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is supposed to have taught the crowds (see Mk 4:1-9). Following directions scribbled out by a monk in a nearby gift shop, the duo walked through the blistering heat and dry grass until the ground suddenly dropped away, and there they were. Staring down at a naturally occurring amphitheater sloping toward the sparkling water, Martin thought to himself in amazement, “Jesus was here!” After another moment of scanning the scene, his astonishment heightened as he noticed the terrain: rocky ground, fertile soil, and even a thorn bush. They had walked straight into the middle of one of Jesus’ parables.

Through this memorable scene and many others like it, Fr. Martin leads his readers deep into the world and life of Jesus of Nazareth in his new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. The book represents Martin’s attempt to answer the question that Jesus posed to his apostles all those years ago and that the world has been struggling to answer ever since: “Who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:29) The answer Martin offers is distinctive in its synthesis of Biblical exegesis, historical Jesus scholarship, theology, and his personal experiences of prayer, spiritual direction, and pilgrimage. In Martin’s words, “It is a look at Jesus, as he appears in the Gospels, through the lens of my education, experience, prayer, and most recently a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And through the lens of faith.”

The entertaining narrative of Martin’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land carries the reader through the significant places and events of Jesus’ life. Though the author’s personal anecdotes lend a satisfying narrative arc and a healthy dose of humor, readers who are more interested in an encounter with Jesus than with the urbane Jesuit will be pleased that the book proceeds according the chronology of Jesus’ life rather than that of Martin’s itinerary. Each chapter focuses on a passage (or two) from the Gospels. The author describes the event as recorded in Scripture, drawing the reader in through first-hand accounts of the sites where Jesus walked, taught, and healed, through scholarship on Jesus’ world, and through reflection on the event’s spiritual significance. Martin helpfully includes the Gospel passage at the end of each chapter, inviting the reader into the Scripture itself.

A chapter on Nazareth begins with Martin sitting in the Basilica of the Annunciation. Following along with Mass, he is struck by the similarity of the Arabic words he is hearing to those Jesus would have spoken in his native Aramaic. He closes his eyes and imagines how Jesus’ voice would have sounded. These musings lead into the story of Jesus being lost and found in the Temple, the Gospels’ sole account of Jesus’ words and actions during the mysterious years of his youth. Delving into current research, Martin fills out some of the details of Jesus’ “Hidden Life”—the sort of simple stone house he lived in; the diet of grains, vegetables, and fruits he ate; the clothing he wore; his work as a tektŌn (woodworker); the economic and political hardship of living as a marginal Jew under Roman rule. Martin revels in these quotidian details, pointing out that it was in these realities of daily life that Jesus was most like us. Thus immersing his readers in this bounty of particularities, the author makes tangible not only the life of the man many would come to revere as “Lord and God” but also the sanctity of one’s own everyday living.

In a later chapter, Martin leads the reader across the Sea of Galilee to Kursi, where Jesus is said to have healed the man possessed by a “legion” of demons (Mk 5:1-20). His description of the scene sends a tingle down one’s spine: a quiet town in the shadow of hills pockmarked with the tombs in which the demoniac is said to have dwelled and, just a few hundred yards away, the sea into which the herd of swine plunged to their death following Jesus’ expulsion of the demons. Reading Martin’s words, one can almost hear the howling of the possessed man and feel the fear that must have gripped the disciples when the demoniac came charging down the hillside toward them. Capitalizing upon the gravitas of the scene he has described, Martin challenges readers to look for the humanity in the possessed man, as Jesus did, and to face down the demons warring within themselves.

In the final chapter, the author writes, “This book has been an invitation for you to meet the Jesus I have studied, the Jesus I follow, and the Jesus I met in the Holy Land.” As the above excerpts are meant to suggest, Martin succeeds spectacularly in his aim. Jesus is impressive not only for the careful research that clearly went into it, but even more so for the way in which the author puts it to use. His allusions to conversations with Fr. Dan Harrington, SJ, (may he rest in peace) and frequent references to John Meier, Gerhard Lohfink, and other eminent scholars serve a greater purpose than merely establishing the book’s credibility. Martin relates what he has learned from his studies for the sake of enabling readers to make a more intimate acquaintance with Jesus than they are likely to achieve by engaging the Gospels’ compact accounts alone. Whether newcomers to the genre or longtime students of theology, readers will not only learn a great deal from this book but also encounter an invitation to relate to the One they read about on a deeper, more personal level.

In this lies Martin’s greatest contribution. Jesus enthusiasts have been gratified by a recent spate of fine scholarship. However, no other author (at least that this reviewer has encountered) has been so successful as Martin in bringing readers face-to-face with the person Christians profess as Teacher, Savior, and God. This success is due in great part to his willingness to share out of his own relationship with Christ. In reading this book, not only was I touched by Martin’s forthcomingness about personal failings and struggles in his spiritual life; I was also challenged and inspired to reflect on my own. A book such as this could only be written by someone who has prayed with these Scripture passages for years and meditated upon them in the deliberate, imaginative manner that characterizes Ignatian contemplation. Spreading the fruit of that prayer and spiritual exertion across these pages, Martin goes beyond telling his readers about the person of Jesus to model how one enters into and sustains a relationship with him.

Lest this review read like a book jacket, it must be acknowledged that Martin’s book (inevitably) falls short of the perfection of its subject matter. In numerous places the author repeats himself in such a way that reflects the difficulty of editing a lengthy manuscript rather than didactic intent. However, such minor oversights hardly detract from an otherwise captivating and edifying book. A less gifted writer might not have been able to sustain readers’ attention for 510 pages, but the combination of Martin’s engaging writing style, the wealth of entertaining anecdotes and fascinating historical tidbits, and the frequent profundity of the author’s reflections makes Jesus a rewarding read from start to finish.

If repeated quests for the historical Jesus have shown us anything, it is that such inquiries are severely limited in their ability to help us know the Jesus who transformed the lives of those he encountered. Today, just as in the days of the early Church, we depend first and foremost on the witness of others in coming to know Christ. That being the case, Fr. Martin’s book and in particular the personal witness he gives therein will surely be the occasion for many to grow in knowledge and love of the person around whom he has built his life.