By Eric A. Clayton
“A writer wants a book to be complete.”
So reflects Jon M. Sweeney, author of the new book “James Martin, SJ: In the Company of Jesus” — a biography of a man whose story is still very much ongoing.
It was a welcome challenge, Sweeney notes, to tackle the life and legacy of one of the most recognized Catholic priests in the United States. As the 23rd installment in the “People of God” series published by Liturgical Press, “James Martin, SJ: In the Company of Jesus” invites readers to grapple with the humanity of its namesake: his strengths, his weaknesses and his witness to a faith lived out in the present day.
“Not being able to reflect on the whole makes me a little uncomfortable,” Sweeney admits. “But I’ve known Jim a long time and read his books and followed his work. He’s lived more than enough to make sense for the book.”
So, where does one start such a task? Sweeney, no stranger to biographies, knew that he would need to get Fr. Martin on board.
“Jon asked me how I felt about being the subject of a biography,” Fr. Martin remembers. “And, to be honest, my first response was, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ My second was, ‘So much for my humility.’”
But Fr. Martin blessed the project — even providing Sweeney with previously unpublished writings, including letters he wrote to his parents during his Jesuit formation — and what would become two years of research and writing began.
“I read and re-read everything he’s written,” Sweeney says. “I wanted to track him chronologically. And part of that means tracking what was interesting him chronologically.”
In so doing, Sweeney discovered that many of the things Fr. Martin is well known for today — for example, his ministry to the LGBTQ+ community — are not new things for Fr. Martin. Sweeney unearthed a piece Fr. Martin had written for America magazine back in 2000 entitled “The challenges and gifts of the homosexual priest.”
“There were many times,” Sweeney says, “when I was reminded that he was ahead of the curve.”
And sometimes, it could be difficult to keep up. Not only was Sweeney tasked with reviewing Fr. Martin’s books and articles, he also spent those two years following the Jesuit’s prolific social media presence.
Sweeney recalls a number of times reading one of Fr. Martin’s tweets and immediately texting him with questions: Was that the best way to phrase that? Are you worried? The answer was always the same: “I’m simply saying what the Gospel says.”
“He tends to feel very confident in what he’s doing,” Sweeney notes. “And that he has the support of his superiors.”
But that doesn’t mean Sweeney wants an uncritical eye from his readers. In addition to his own analysis, he provides numerous examples of Fr. Martin’s posts — to the point of including original typos — so that the reader can get a sense of the moment: its needs, its opportunities and its critics.
“He sees these responses as an essential part of his ministry, as a member of the Catholic media, a priest, and a Jesuit,” Sweeney writes. “Since his Jesuit ministry began, he has looked for those who need protecting, uplifting, rehabilitating and healing.”
Yet, social media is, perhaps, one of the greatest examples in which Sweeney’s original concern is realized: Fr. Martin’s story is far from over. But Sweeney had to end his somewhere.
Ultimately — like the other books in the series — “James Martin, SJ: In the Company of Jesus” offers readers the opportunity to find God at work in the narrative of a fellow pilgrim on life’s journey.
“My main hope is that the book helps people see that God can work with anyone,” Fr. Martin reflects.
“There’s almost a way in which there’s spiritual direction from Jim in this book,” Sweeney says. “The whole purpose of that is to let the reader see and experience Jim’s spirit and teaching and to be influenced by it.”