By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 9, 2011
Like many best-selling authors, Father Jim Martin faced one last difficulty in writing his newest book. What to call it?
It’s about joy and humor in the spiritual life. Father Martin thought of “Sarah’s Laugh” with its link to the Genesis story of the elderly Sarah laughing at the promise of angels that she would become pregnant. His editor rejected the idea as not appealing enough.
Father Martin turned to his 6,000 Facebook followers asking for ideas. Some 130 suggestions later, he found a title. “Some of them were crazy, some really good,” he said.
Father Martin is a Jesuit priest and cultural editor at America, a national Catholic weekly magazine. He has written or edited more than 10 books, most recently the best-selling “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” and “My Life With the Saints” before that. He served as the theological advisor for an off-Broadway play “The Last Day of Judas Iscariot,” which he wrote about in “A Jesuit Off-Broadway.” Father Martin was in Atlanta to speak at Holy Spirit Church and the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership Conference.
Father Martin’s life turned around after working for six years in the financial world of General Electric. He gave in to his long-denied desires and joined the Jesuits. That desire took him from the Fortune 100 company to a refugee camp in Kenya. The Pennsylvania native joined the Society of Jesus in 1988 and was ordained in 1999. Now he works in the media capital of the world, while living a life of prayer set out by a 16th-century Spanish knight turned religious figure, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
In Atlanta’s Ignatius Retreat House, Father Martin stood in front of the chapel’s wall of windows. Some 60 women and men came on Tuesday, May 24, for an evening exchange with him. He talked about his vocation, about saving time for prayer, relationships, how the church can reach out to young people, and being the chaplain to “The Colbert Report” television program on Comedy Central.
On prayer, Father Martin said, “Each moment is open to experience God’s presence.”
He talked about the prayer used by Jesuits called the examination of conscience. He called it “prayer of noticing” as people review what happened during a day. He said it was no accident that St. Ignatius designed the prayer by having people start the day’s review with gratitude. If it started with a focus on shortcomings, people wouldn’t progress on their spiritual journey, he said.
Father James Martin, who has written 400-page books on faith, also uses Twitter almost daily to send out a homily that is 140 characters long, the Twitter limit.
On reaching out to women and men who have left the church, Father Martin said it’d do church leaders good to listen to their stories. Church leaders can help the effort by using the communication tools used by young people, from Facebook to Twitter. As Jesus used parables, which were story-telling tools of his day, the church needs to be using the tools of today, he said.
“If Jesus could talk about the birds, we should tweet. It’s good to be out there,” said Father Martin. He uses Twitter almost daily to send out a 140-character homily.
“It’s one way the church can reconnect with young adults, speaking the language that they use. If that’s where people are, why not?” he asked.
He learned in seminary the key to homilies is to “be clear, be brief, be gone.” Twitter is a good way to put that into practice. Said Father Martin: “It’s a good discipline.”
On Friday, May 27, he sent out: “Gospel: How does Jesus love? By forgiving when it’s hard. By being kind when it’s inconvenient. By being faithful when all else are not.”
Also, the church could emphasize the joy of the spiritual life, he said. At times, a priest celebrates Mass with mumbled words and dreary emotion, he said. Protestants do a better job celebrating and welcoming, he said.
“Joy too. We forget that. Jesus had fun,” he said, which is the focus of Father Martin’s next book.
About “The Colbert Report,” Father Martin said he wrote a piece for The New York Times that caught the eye of the show’s producers. They invited him to speak when questions were raised about whether Blessed Teresa of Calcutta at a point in her life had lost her faith. Father Martin said that the beatified nun didn’t lose her faith but simply felt an absence of God.
Going on the show is a great way to evangelize, he said. Preaching 5,000 homilies won’t reach as many people as there are “Colbert Report” watchers, he said.
Father Martin’s embrace of popular culture earned him fans. People at the three-hour Atlanta event applauded Father Martin’s message.
Justin Ryan, who is 31 and worships at Christ the King Cathedral, Atlanta, said, “He’s a powerhouse.”
Father Martin can talk to people to “console them but also say things they don’t want to hear,” he said.
“To some, he’s too soft. To some, he’s considered too hardline. That’s a balancing act that you’d probably want all priests to be at,” he said.
Members of the graduate student ministry at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center came to hear him speak. Michelle Dimeo, 26, a doctoral candidate, said Father Martin has a unique way of connecting with young Catholics.
“He understands my generation and who we are as Catholics. We value our church and we value our faith,” she said.
Caroline Black, 26, of St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville, came with several others from the young adult ministry. The group had its photo taken with Father Martin.
“This guy was an awesome priest, he was funny, he was approachable, and personable,” she said.