In an interview this summer, Pope Francis called religious proselytizing “the worst thing of all” since it alienates and pushes people away. The church will grow instead, he said, “by attraction.”
Francis, as we all know, is extremely attractive.
In his own more modest way, so is Francis’ fellow Jesuit, the Rev. James Martin. He packed a 600-seat auditorium Thursday night at Boston College for a talk about his latest bestseller, “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”
You see Martin. You hear him and talk to him. He comes across as happy, even joyful, charming and funny. He is, after all, official chaplain of “The Colbert Report”.
You can’t help think that if there were more welcoming, inviting, and just plain fun priests like Martin, the Sunday pews would be as packed as the hall Thursday night.
Martin joked about the deeply discounted books he was selling outside the door. “It makes the perfect gift for all your friends.” He joked about figuring out, during vacation at a Jesuit house in Cohasset, why Jesus so often preached from boats. Martin heard little kids whining and screaming in sailboats on the waves and it hit him: sound really travels across water. That matters when you’re just one man with no microphone preaching to thousands by the Sea of Galilee.
Martin joked, too, about scholars trying to re-make Jesus into someone who didn’t make them nervous: merely a wise and compassionate rabbi, not somebody who’d embarrass them with “all that stuff about raising people from the dead and walking on water.” Most famously, he recalled, Thomas Jefferson scissored from his Bible the Jesus miracles that made him uneasy, reconfiguring Jesus until, he said, “Jesus was basically … Thomas Jefferson.”
That was Martin’s theme: Jesus is both the historical man from tiny Nazareth (population 200 to 400) and the god man who rose from the tomb. The two cannot be separated, and “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” succeeds in combining the Jesus of history with the divine Jesus in a new and unique way.
Martin traveled to the Holy land to walk where Jesus walked. He spoke about standing by what’s called The Bay of Parables, another favorite Jesus preaching spot. The topographic mix surprised him. “I was amazed to see rocks and thorns and fertile groups.” Then Matthew’s gospel parable immediately came to mind, the one about seeds falling on rocky soil, or among thorns, or on fertile soil, and those produced much fruit. “It dawned on me. (Jesus was not preaching about) rocks in general, but those rocks, right here, behind you,” he said. “Flesh and blood, really alive.”
James Martin came late to the priesthood. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, he worked as a General Electric executive. He has written numerous bestsellers, including “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,” “Between Heaven and Mirth (Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life)” “How Can I Find God,” and “My Life with the Saints.” He’s been all over TV, network and cable, and appeared on NPR’s “On Point” with Terry Gross. Yet most of my fed-up, ex-Catholic friends have barely heard of him, which says something about the gargantuan gulf between such Catholics and the formal church, even a welcoming celebrity priest.
In an interview Thursday night, Martin says he tells lapsed Catholics to pay attention to the attraction they may be feeling now, with Francis.
“I tell them that attraction is a sign of God calling you, that he calls us through attraction and desires and longing,’ he said. “I tell them when people saw Jesus, they were attracted to him, too. Great crowds followed him. His magnetism.”
People are drawn to Francis; they were drawn to Jesus, too. “To see someone who’s joyful in a genuine way,” Martin says, “that draws us to God.”