Avoiding Bloviations

About Fr. Martin

The Rev. James Martin, S.J., a native of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1982 and worked in corporate finance at General Electric for six years before leaving to enter the Society of Jesus in 1988. He was ordained a priest in 1999.

Fr. Martin currently serves as editor at large of America magazine and is an award-winning author. His books include Jesus: A Pilgrimage (a New York Times bestseller), The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Between Heaven and Mirth and his latest, Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus.

He is a regular commentator in the national and international media, and his appearances have ranged from NPR’s “Fresh Air” to Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” PBS’ “NewsHour” and Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

Watch Fr. Martin’s commencement address here.

Avoiding Bloviations

Nationally and internationally accomplished Jesuit priest, writer and commentator the Rev. James Martin, S.J., was the featured speaker at Creighton University’s afternoon commencement ceremony on May 14.

Creighton University Magazine caught up with Fr. Martin for an email interview prior to graduation. The bestselling author, also known for his guest appearances on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” shared his thoughts on a range of topics.

Q: You’ve had an opportunity to speak at commencement exercises for several universities. What message do you hope to impart as students go forth into the world and begin the next chapters of their lives?

Fr. Martin: I hope to give them some practical advice, not just some abstract bloviations. Essentially, I’ll aim for the kind of talk that I wish I heard when I graduated instead of, well, bloviations. Knowing that I’m speaking to Jesuit-educated students means that I’ll be able to speak their language, as it were. It’s such an honor to be invited to do this, especially at Creighton, which has such an important place in this country as a real center for Ignatian spirituality.

Q: You are popularly known as “Chaplain of the Colbert Nation” or “Colbert’s Priest,” given your appearances on comedian Stephen Colbert’s talk show. You are also a humorist in your own right. Do you follow in the vein of great American humorist Mark Twain in believing, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand?”

Fr. Martin: I would agree in part with Mark Twain. But just in part. I mean, people laughed at Adolf Hitler for a time, but that didn’t seem to stop him very effectively. But against pomposity in general I think Mr. Twain was right.

More basically, humor is an essential element for a healthy spirituality. Catholics tend to downplay that. Just go into a Catholic church and count all the crucifixes and statues of sad-looking saints. Not that the suffering of Jesus wasn’t important. Rather, the Passion narratives represent only part of his life — one week in fact. The majority of his ministry was one of joy. Healing the sick, raising the dead, preaching the Good News to the poor. These are all occasions of great joy.  

Jesus himself said that people critiqued him for being a “glutton and a drunkard.” That is, he was being critiqued for living it up. After all, his first miracle was to make more wine at a party. So we have to move away from this idea of Jesus, and the saints, and, by extension, holy people, as dour and depressive. It’s essential not only for a sense of humility (that is, laughing at yourself) but also to maintain a healthy perspective of who you are, and your place in the world. Basically, you’re not God. That’s important for everyone.

Q: As a Catholic priest, how do you appeal to a wider non-Catholic, non-Christian audience, and how has your Jesuit calling instilled in you the desire to reach a more universal, diverse group of people?

Fr. Martin: I try to write for the person I was before entering the Jesuits — that is, not knowledgeable about the faith, about the Gospels, about Jesus or about anything religious. So that enables me, I think, to reach more people. I try to keep things basic at first and then trust that the reader will be able to follow me.    

As for my Jesuit calling, well, our goal is to “help souls,” as St. Ignatius Loyola, our founder, often said. And that’s everyone — not just Catholics!

Q: You once consulted for a play that opened off-Broadway. How did that come about, what was that experience like and did you ever imagine your Jesuit vocation would lead you in that direction?

Fr. Martin: I was invited to work on a play on Judas with the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. The play, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” [which debuted in 2005] was directed by [the late] Philip Seymour Hoffman, and starred Eric Bogosian and Sam Rockwell, among others. It was a delightful experience. I had zero experience with actors or the theater, and so it was a learning experience for me. And for them, too. I knew something about the Gospels and they knew something (a lot) about acting, directing and so on.  

Funny enough, one day I said to one of the actors, “So when are you starting your practices?” And he said, “Um, Father Jim, they’re called rehearsals.”  

And no, I never, ever, imagined when I entered the Jesuits that I would do anything like this. The God of Surprises, you know.

Q: Entering the Jesuits after being educated at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and a career at General Electric, what lessons, if any, have you brought forward from your days in the corporate world? What things about our current corporate culture would you like to see open to change?

Fr. Martin: That’s a great question. At General Electric, I learned a great deal about how to work efficiently, and how to work hard. So I still make it a point to be at my desk at 9 a.m., and I always put in a full day’s work, unless I’m traveling. I think every Jesuit should work just as hard as anyone in an office does. That’s very important for me: I have a real horror of laziness. “S.J.” doesn’t stand for “Soft Job.”  

Also, funny enough, I learned at GE to, as we used to say, “Never let a piece of paper touch your desk more than once.” That is, when you get a task, or an email, or a phone call, take care of it. It’s a rule that’s helped me a lot.

As for our corporate culture: Business is obviously a key part of our society. And business is a real vocation for millions of people. But the corporate world needs to grasp more fully that the bottom line isn’t the only measure of a corporation’s success or its value. And a salary isn’t the only measure of a person’s success or value.  

This isn’t the time to go into a long discussion about economics or capitalism, but, as Pope Francis says in his encyclical Laudato Si’, there are more metrics for success: How well does the company contribute to the common good? How well does it pay its workers? How happy are its employees? And so on. I found in the business world a slavish devotion to the bottom line, which, needless to say, is quite limiting. Some of those questions (though I wouldn’t have been able to frame them that way at the time) were what led me out of GE and into the Jesuits.