Serving a Culture of Encounter

By Mike Benigno

Amidst increasing global inequality, digital distraction, and diversions that keep us away from God, Pope Francis, in his message marking the 2014 World Communications Day, shared a message of hope. Media, the pope wrote, can help us resolve our differences through dialogue (a word that would pepper critical points of his 2015 encyclical), particularly now, when the stakes are high and the networks of human connection have made unprecedented advances. Jesuits have embraced media and the humanities since the inception of the Society of Jesus. Today, Jesuits, and Jesuit works across our provinces, continue to employ media to minister on the frontiers of the Church, as Pope Francis would put it, at the service of an authentic culture of encounter.

Fr. James Martin, SJ

Since entering the Jesuits in 1988, Fr. Martin has become something of a media figurehead for the Society of Jesus. Today, he is likely best known as an author and, apart from only Pope Francis himself, the preeminent Jesuit on social media. Each time Fr. Martin posts to social media—and he does compose all of his own posts—his messages on culture, politics and prayer reach a following larger than the entire population of Seattle.

For several years, he served as the “official chaplain” of The Colbert Report, and he’s worked as a religious consultant for numerous films, in between publishing over a dozen books on topics ranging from his transition from the corporate world to religious life and the seven last words that Jesus spoke to the spirituality of Thomas Merton. His Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Anything is often cited as an inspiration among men discerning Jesuit vocations, and while there have been many notable Jesuit authors, no other has written so widely for a popular audience.

With each social media post, Fr. James Martin, SJ, speaks to an audience larger than the city of Seattle.

“I approach my work as a ministry of the Word, and I view my writing in the context of my service as a Jesuit.” Fr. Martin said from his desk at America Media’s offices in New York City, where he serves as editor-at-large. Such solid footing has helped during the challenging times that occasionally come with a life that so frequently crosses into the public realm.

His recent book, Building a Bridge, encourages an active, respectful dialogue between the Church and LGBT Catholics, receiving an official ecclesiastical approval from Fr. Martin’s Jesuit superiors as well as endorsements from several cardinals, including a high-ranking Vatican official. After the book was published, several institutions were pressured to withdraw invitations for Martin to speak, even on topics unrelated to the book, stirring a public debate about the state of religious dialogue. Still, he explained, Ignatian discernment has helped him find a surprising sense of balance despite the turmoil.

“I want to do my best to be charitable, calm and thoughtful in terms of the criticism,” Fr. Martin said. “The biggest grace for me has been the realization that not everyone is going to love me, like me, approve of me or agree with me, and that’s been very freeing.”

The Jesuit Post

The Jesuit Post provides a Jesuit, Catholic perspective on the contemporary world. But instead of a scholarly take on today’s culture, commentary in the Post is written “as one friend speaks to another,” words taken directly from St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. This alternative, casual tone has contributed to its success since its founding in 2012 as a media project produced, edited and written entirely by Jesuits in formation.

Today, over 80,000 people follow the Jesuit Post’s social media channels, with thousands more subscribing via email and visiting the website each day. It is produced independently, headed by five editors who collaborate from different parts of the U.S. using email, a Slack channel, shared drives and monthly Google hangouts.

“It’s fun looking at our Slack channel, where a writer working in Chicago tags his editor in Seattle, and then they get a social media promoter in St. Louis involved. Next, Jesuits and others from around the world help us by sharing our stories,” said Danny Gustafson, SJ, Jesuit regent and editor in chief, who currently teaches religion at Fordham Prep in the Bronx.

The Jesuit Post, edited by Danny Gustafson, SJ, provides a casual take on today’s culture, produced entirely by Jesuits in formation.
Each editor is paired with a peer mentor at America Media, which also provides administrative support. But because the project is run entirely by Jesuits and produced exclusively online, there are virtually no expenses.

While the Post has produced pieces written by some 50 Jesuit authors, in the last year it has also had success with video and multimedia. A “One Minute Homily” series proved wildly popular, featuring rotating reflections by Jesuit brothers and scholastics, and in October 2017, the Post celebrated its millionth website view.

“We are writing pieces for our audience, but a lot of us have also found that this is a formative process that helps us be better Jesuits,” Gustafson said. “We’re crafting better communication skills, we’re giving and receiving criticism and, as people who will be involved in preaching and public speaking, we’re learning to communicate with a wide variety of people, which is— and has always been—great and very informative for a Jesuit.”

America Media

Over the course of more than a century, America magazine, the nation’s leading Catholic review, has published the work of more than 200 U.S. and Canadian Jesuits, spanning from civil rights activist John LaFarge and theologian John Courtney Murray, to Leo O’Donovan, president emeritus of Georgetown University, and Daniel Berrigan, noted poet and activist.

America magazine was founded by the Jesuits in 1909 on the pillars of editorial commentary, Catholic news coverage, reviews of the arts and dialogue with its audience. America has since locked step with changes in the Church, reporting on and supporting the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, building key partnerships with lay writers, editors and thought leaders in Catholic media (including Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Wood Johnson), and leading the public conversation about the role of women in today’s Church. In 2013, the magazine made history by publishing the English translation of “A Big Heart Open to God”, the first official interview with the newly elected Pope Francis.

America exists at the service of the Church, and, as a point of fact, remains independent of any Jesuit province as a collective work of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.

The staff of America Media works to produce excellent, unique and relevant content for Catholics.

America leads the conversation about faith and culture,” said Matt Malone, SJ, president and editor in chief, “and our editorial mission demands that we bring people together through conversation, that we keep the Word of God in daily life and continue to nourish both faith and intellect. Across our print, digital, video, audio and events platforms, we are engaging more people than ever before as we meet the intersection of the Church and the world.”

In 2015, America relaunched as America Media, which now comprises a publishing company, the Catholic Book Club, an events and programming wing along with a video production unit, a weekly broadcast on SiriusXM and the popular Jesuit(ical) podcast. The print magazine is published 26 times per year and sent to an audience of over 43,000.

“What’s most important to our work is that we do not confuse the language of the world for the language of the Church,” continued Malone. “Terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are not treated so commonly in our content. In order to lead the conversation about faith and culture, we realized that we have to break free of the strictures of language being hurled around today for the language that defines what the Church truly is: Christian. The Christian knows neither right nor left, conservative or liberal, but rather the Gospel message and the love of God as the directing forces of our lives.”

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