Without paying careful attention, you can walk right past the America media headquarters on West 56th Street. The nameplate, worn and faded through years of exposure to weather, blends seamlessly into the charcoal entryway. Who knew that a doorway so humble would hold within it the creative engine behind one of the most popular magazines in the media capital of the world?
A writer and contributor for America since 1999, Fr. James Martin is a modern-day example of a renaissance man. Most famous for authoring books, any Jesuit student has either read or knows about his New York Times bestselling work, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything.” As an Editor-at-Large at America Media, he contributes articles, interviews, and Catholic perspectives on a wide variety of current event issues. Appearing on NPR, Fox News, CNN, as well as writing for other publications like Time, Huffington Post, and The New York Times, Fr. Martin exemplifies the contemporary face of the Church by working closely with secular media. Through his travels as a Jesuit, he’s served ministries all over the East Coast and even worked in Africa helping refugees open small businesses. Even when New York was devastated by the September 11th attacks, Fr. Martin arrived on the scene only days later to counsel the first responders and provide hope to a very bleak atmosphere.
As part of my trip to New York City, I stopped by on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to meet with Fr. Martin in his office overlooking the busy street. Fr. Martin and I focused on the three distinct areas of his life which intersected with my experiences: his life as a Jesuit, his life working at a Jesuit publication, and the situations he faced in the aftermath of September 11th.
The Roundup: I am a senior in high school, and there’s these competing desires we struggle with, how we can do something to either help change the world or to be financially successful. What would be your advice to try and navigate through that storm of conflicting pulls?
You still have to look for something that’s going to pay well because you still have to eat!
Fr. Martin: Well, the first thing to recognize is that God calls you through your desires. On a simple level, you think about two people getting married; they come together through desire. Or someone getting called to the priesthood, I’m attracted to that. It’s the same for any vocation or any career. You try and get a sense of what you want, what you desire, and to say that this might be God’s call. The second thing is to test it out, to see how you do. If you want to be a baseball player, but you can’t hit a line drive, then try something else. [laughs] The third thing to recognize is that it’s not unreasonable to expect a fair wage. You still have to look for something that’s going to pay well because you still have to eat! But I think the desire to fulfill your vocation should come first and the other things should come second. Normally, people put the third thing first, which is making money, and everything else just falls by the wayside. That’s what I did before I realized what I really wanted to do. It is a tension, but I think it can be navigated.
R: You’ve written quite a lot for America Media, and you’ve written quite a few books as well. From a Jesuit perspective, when you have an idea for a book, do you have to pitch it to your Jesuit superiors and then start writing it?
Fr. M: I sort of let the ideas for the books come naturally and trust that in some way, God is leading me. I had this idea for a book about the saints. I wrote this book called “My Life with the Saints” and I wanted to write it. At the beginning, you pitch it mostly to the publishers, and if they’re interested, then you go ahead with it. I wouldn’t have to get approval for writing anything from my superiors unless it was controversial. So, if I’m going to write the boundaries on some Church topic, then I have to get permission, but that’s usually for articles. For books, my books are mostly about Jesuit spirituality, Jesus, and the saints; so they’re fine with that. Once I’m done, they have to approve it. It’s literally called the censor [because] that’s where the word comes from as they send it to a Jesuit theologian who approves it. But if I were writing a book on women’s ordination or same-sex marriage or birth control or anything that in any way would push the boundaries of Church teaching, it’d be a different story. The majority of what I’m writing, however, is more mainstream.
R: I believe you actually came to Jesuit Dallas a couple years ago, correct?
Fr. M: I did. I came to the school a few years ago. I did a talk at the University of Dallas and ended up staying overnight. I think I ended up giving a talk to faculty and parents in the traditional library. It’s a really great community!
R: As a Jesuit who lives in New York, do you notice any differences in the communal atmosphere in an area with a lot of Jesuit involvement versus places like Jesuit Dallas where the closest Jesuit school is Strake, four hours away?
Fr. M: That’s really interesting. I lived in Boston where there are a lot of Jesuit ministries; I lived in Chicago where there are a lot of Jesuit ministries; I was in Nairobi where likewise there’s a lot of Jesuit involvement, then New York, then Boston again. So, I’ve never lived in a one-ministry town. [laughs] What’s kind of cool is that I live with people who are doing all different works here in New York. One guy teaches at the Cristo Rey and another person teaches at Loyola school, which is another high school. But, you’re a subway ride away from Xavier where a lot of my friends work at the parish and teach; Regis and Fordham Prep are some other places I get up to. I think you’re reminded that you aren’t the only game in town and that the Jesuit world is more than just America Magazine. It keeps you humble.
R: When you’re brainstorming ideas for either the online or print edition, do you try to take information from current events and put a Catholic lens on them?
Fr. M: Funny enough, we were just talking about that in our editorial meeting. Yes, a lot of it is driven by current events and it’s a Catholic take on what is happening. Some of it is dictated by what’s happening in the Church, the election of Pope Francis, the Synod on the Family, and even the liturgical season. We’re doing a lot of stuff on Easter right now because that’s what people are thinking about. A lot of it is timeless, so you write an article on prayer because you feel like writing an article on prayer. It’s news oriented stuff, church news oriented stuff, and timeless church stuff.
R: I know that at The Roundup we wrote an article about the San Bernardino iPhone case and the ultimate conclusion that several of the theology teachers we interviewed came to was that there’s a lot of different ways to interpret the situation. Does that present a challenge when you’re trying to write about a subject because there’re many ways you can interpret Catholic teaching?
Fr. M: Definitely. I mean, part of the challenge is if you’re going to write a Catholic take on something for example like the iPhone situation. If you are not an expert in the law about that, you can’t write intelligently. Personally, I try to stay away from stuff I don’t know anything about. [laughs] I’m not going to write on too many scientific and ethical scientific issues because I don’t know very much about them. There are people who know it better too; there are Jesuits who know it better too. So, if it’s on something like gene manipulation to cure some disease, I know a Jesuit molecular biologist or maybe an ethicist that’s better suited to write about it than me. There’s some things I know a fair amount on that I can write about, but I try to stay away from things I know nothing about.
R: I know that nowadays there’s a huge push for digital media and I know that a lot of people especially bigger newspapers are having to put more time into their online content. However, America Magazine still publishes regularly a print magazine that people are still buying regularly and there’s still a strong desire for that. Where do you think that attraction to a magazine comes from and why haven’t people moved away from that?
Six to seven years ago people were saying ‘There’s not going to be any more print.’ I think now, people are realizing it has to be both and.
Fr. M: I actually found out in our editor meeting today that 80% of the people who read the print magazine do not go online and read us online. Now, it’s very interesting because obviously that skews a little older, but older people still go online. My mother is eighty-four and she goes online! I still believe even in 2016 that having a print magazine gives you more credibility. The difference between The New York Times and other newspapers is the fact that there is a print product. It is still even in our digital age. It may be different for the younger generation, but if the New York Times became only online, there would be something intangible lost for many people. Some people still prefer reading a long news story in print rather than on their phones. Six to seven years ago people were saying, ‘There’s not going to be any more print.’ I think now, people are realizing it has to be both.
R: Especially with online media, there’s a huge focus on how well images scale to phone, screen, and tablet and how dynamic a website is. Hypothetically, you could do a huge photo spread on a desktop, but when it condenses down to a phone size, people don’t want to scroll past a huge image to get to the article.
Fr. M: Interestingly, I was asked to do a column by a newspaper that was going to be on something controversial and they were going to put it behind a paywall. I said I don’t want to do it because if it’s going to be controversial, people aren’t going to be able to read the whole thing. There’s an example where the online presence is important for people to be able to access stories. By the same token, I still prefer being in print. If the Times said you can have a story that’s online or one in print, there’s still this cachet about having it in print.
R: You are an Editor-at-Large at America, and to be perfectly honest it’s something that I personally and a lot of people I know didn’t have much of an understanding about. Do you think the flexibility and capacity for creativity is something that draws you to this particular position?
Fr. M: It’s interesting. I was an Associate Editor; I was Culture Editor for a while; then I was Acting Publisher and then I went back to Associate Editor. Then Matt, the new Editor, asked me if I would be this new position. Basically, an Editor-at-Large can write about more or less whatever he wants to write about. I write a lot of books which brings revenue into the magazine, so that’s how I see my role basically. It’s a strange thing, as you know Jesuits take a vow of poverty, so all our money goes to the community. All my salary for the magazine goes towards the Jesuit community. Interestingly, since I work and write here, the money from my books doesn’t actually go to the community or the province, it goes to the apostolate. While that’s my main role, I can also write about stuff I want and it’s very freeing.
R: When you’re brainstorming ideas, do you prefer to write on paper or do you work online?
Fr. M: When I’m thinking about ideas, I sort of just think about it. Then when I’m ready to write, I just sit down and start writing it. For example, I was asked by the Wall Street Journal to write this piece on Easter. I thought about what I would write, emailed them back, asked the editors, and they approved it from there. I don’t really go outline or do anything like that.
R: One of the most interesting things to me is that your work is in a lot of different places: you write for America, you publish books, and contribute to various newspapers. Is working with secular media outlets something that’s newer?
Fr. M: Yeah, Jesuits, I think, have traditionally written for other Catholic publications. It’s interesting America has changed a lot. It used to be all Jesuits on the editing staff. Then there was one lay editor and now it’s half Jesuits half lay people. Sometimes, they’ve written for secular publications like The Times, but we’re doing it much more now. I think that’s just part of the Catholic Church reaching out more. I’ve always enjoyed it because that’s where all the people are; so if you write for publications like The New York Times, more people read them.
R: America works in a media landscape rife with slander, anger, and sandbagging. How does such a magazine keep such a pristine reputation aligned with Jesuit ideals while maintaining competitiveness with other publications?
Always being respectful, always being charitable, and always giving people the benefit of the doubt which is a big Jesuit idea.
Fr. M: Our editor is very good because he’s actually banned the use of the words liberal and conservative from the magazine. I’ve been here since 1999, and we’ve always been, thank God, above the board and not attacking a person using ad-hominem attacks. Always being respectful, always being charitable, and always giving people the benefit of the doubt which is a big Jesuit idea. I’m very proud that we’ve never done that, and it would be terrible for the Church too if we came out attacking people! That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with people; We’ve disagreed with President Bush and President Obama. It’s how can you be respectful, how you can disagree with someone without attacking them.
R: There’s a lot of media coverage on 9/11 particularly in anniversary years; however, the majority of that coverage is geared towards pictures of the tragedy or interviews intended to evoke sadness in the viewer. Why are members of the media particularly the secular branches so obsessed with the depressing areas 9/11 rather than the positive uplifting ones?
Fr. M: Perhaps, because it’s harder to show the humanity, it’s harder to show complex stories and easier to show black and white and good and bad. In fact, on 9/11, I was here at the magazine and I had just come back from a doctor’s appointment and the woman, [who works in our entryway] Glenda, told me that one of the towers had collapsed and I remember saying, ‘What are you listening to? That’s ridiculous.’ I remember being a little angry with her like ‘Why are you paying attention to all these over-the-top radio stations?’ In the days following, every news outlet was about unity and coming together and within just a two weeks, [snaps fingers], it became political. Because it became political, it became divisive and I think it started to become used. I actually think in New York, the coverage is more nuanced because the reporters know these people [and] the reporters have connections with family members and victim’s families. I would suggest that for The Times, for example, the coverage is about the humanity and how people are recovering and things like that. Maybe in other news, it’s not as thoughtful, but I think The Times has always done a really good job. Have you had a chance to look at their Portraits of Grief?
R: Yes, Kevin O’Rourke, the firefighter whose family I stayed with, was featured in that series.
Fr. M: That was amazing. It was for weeks, if not months. There you got a sense of people’s humanity, what they liked and who they were and it was all very touching. I would say some places don’t do a very good job, but the papers in New York definitely do.
R: On a final note, every single person I have met or talked to about 9/11 has glowed with pride about how united the entire country was in the face of such horrific trauma. Do you think we can only achieve this level of unity during a tragedy? What would facilitate this movement towards world peace without so much death?
Fr. M: Hopefully not another tragedy. I think a couple things contribute to it: number one, the current level of political discourse is pretty toxic. It’s us versus them, and some of the things that come out of politician’s mouths I can’t believe. Second, I think the media has a lot to do with it. Some of the things you see on certain networks is very divisive. And the third thing is, I’m actually on social media all the time, and I think social media has contributed a lot to it, in the sense that it’s okay to have random anonymous comments to other people. That makes everyone overall more divided, and I think income inequality does that a lot too. The top 1% control an incredible amount of wealth, which is not only unjust in terms of Catholic social teaching but also makes people mad and want to lash out. So, what would it take to get back to it? I think political leaders, people in the media, and other leaders, must cease the ad-hominem attacks and speak more generously of those on the other side.