Father Martin: Embrace both Jesus’ humanity and divinity

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Friday, March 23, 2018

Father James Martin SJ delivers Lenten talks at Holy Name Cathedral

The Office of Parish Vitality and Mission for the Archdiocese of Chicago hosted speaker, author and Jesuit priest Father James Martin for two nights at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. On March 22, 2018, the topic was "Encountering Jesus: Meeting the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History" and on March 23, 2018, the the topic was "Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus." Martin is editor-at-large of America magazine and best-selling author of "Building a Bridge" and "Jesus: A Pilgrimage." (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father James Martin speaks about Jesus' humanity on March 22 at Holy Name Cathedral. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich smiles at something Martin said in his talk March 22. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A capacity crowd of 1,200 turned out for Martin's March 22 talk. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

If the Catholic speaking circuit has a rock star, Jesuit Father James Martin might be it.

Martin, author of several best-selling books, editor-at-large of America magazine and consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, drew about 1,200 people to Holy Name Cathedral March 22 to hear him talk about “Encountering Jesus: Meeting the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.” On March 23, he spoke again at the cathedral about “The Seven Last Words of Christ.”

In his hour-long talk, Martin made the point that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and that those two natures cannot be separated.

Over the years, there have been scholars and theologians who choose to focus on the historical Jesus, the man who lived in first-century Palestine and worked alongside Mary and Joseph, who saw the disparities between the rich and the poor and reached out to the poor and marginalized in his teaching, he said.

As a human being, having a human body, he entered the world as a helpless and vulnerable infant. He needed to be held and nursed, needed to have his diaper changed, fell and skinned his knees, Martin said.

“Jesus’ humanity is a stumbling block for many people,” Martin said. “Including some Christians.”

Others emphasize the “Christ of faith,” Martin said, the God who used parables to teach lessons about the relationship of God to all of humanity, who when he talked about a widow searching her house for a coin was really talking about God trying to redeem a sinner.

“If Jesus’ humanity is a stumbling block for people, his divinity is even more so,” Martin said. “For a rational, modern mind, talk of the supernatural can be disturbing, really disturbing.”

But ignoring either Jesus’ humanity or his divinity means misunderstanding Jesus’ entire story.

“If we lose sight of either set of questions, we risk turning Jesus into God pretending to be a man, or a man pretending to be God,” he said.

Martin’s reflection, and his talk on the “Seven Last Words” on March 23, were both a good fit for Lent, as Catholics prepare for the renewal of Easter, said Father Peter Wojcik, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Department of Parish Life and Formation.

They also were in harmony with Renew My Church, the archdiocese’s effort to revitalize its mission of bringing the Gospel to the world, he said.
Many of those who attended were attracted by Martin’s previous work.

Joan Dixey, a parishioner at St. Cajetan, 2445 W. 112th St., said she became familiar with Martin when her Ignatian Volunteer Corps group read “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”

“I like his message,” she said. “He’s very pastoral. That’s what we need more of.”

Cooper Gillan attended with a group from Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago. Although they are not Catholic, group members also read the “Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” during Lent and learned about Ignatian spirituality.

Gillan said that when they heard Martin would be speaking in Chicago, he emailed Martin to see if it would all right for them to come, and was pleasantly surprised when he received a reply from Martin himself.

“We really want to hear what he has to say, and hopefully get a chance to meet him,” Gillan said.

Larry VanMersbergen has met Martin several times. VanMersbergen works for World Library Publications, a Catholic publisher, and has encountered him at conferences and conventions around the country. He came into Chicago from Oswego with his wife, Jamie, and their friend, Kelly Schomer.

Jamie VanMersbergen said she and Schomer belong to a book club called Dashboard Jesus Divas, and Martin’s “My Life with the Saints” was the first selection they tackled.

At the time, she said, she reached out to Martin on Facebook, and like Gillan, was surprised to get a personal reply.

Larry VanMersbergen said Martin’s willingness to connect with people makes him different.

“I’ve never seen somebody with this kind of celebrity go through a room and get stopped and asked to take pictures and everything, and he never looks annoyed,” VanMersbergen said.

Not everyone is as keen on Martin. Close to 100 protesters lined the sidewalk across the street from the cathedral, carrying signs decrying what they see as Martin’s too tolerant view of homosexuality, praying and singing hymns with the accompaniment of two bagpipers.

Martin endured a firestorm of online criticism from far-right groups such as LifeSiteNews and Church Militant after the 2017 release of his book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.”

The ensuing controversy led to several Catholic institutions, including Theological College at the Catholic University of America, canceling planned speaking engagements with Martin. The book has the approval of Martin’s Jesuit superiors and support from several U.S. bishops, archbishops and cardinals, and, even so, none of the cancelled engagements were to focus on that book.

It was after the Theological College cancellation in September that Cardinal Cupich invited Martin to speak at the cathedral.

To watch a video of this talk, visit


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