Father James Martin.Irish Voice

The film Spotlight, about the reporters who exposed the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Boston, just earned Golden Globe nods for Best Drama as well as Best Director for Irish American Tom McCarthy.

In other words, we are once again being reminded of just how terribly once-trusted Catholic leaders behaved.

And yet, Father James Martin, S.J., who might as well be called America’s Chaplain, is optimistic about the future of the church in the U.S.

“Christians are people of hope,” said Martin in a recent email exchange with the Irish Voice. “Despite some real challenges like the lingering effects of the sex abuse crisis, declining Mass attendances and widespread parish closings, I’m very hopeful.”

A recent story in Catholic New York noted that Martin “is one of the most popular and prolific Catholic writers” working today. He is editor at large of America magazine and the best-selling author of books such as The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Between Heaven and Mirth, and Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

Martin also gained national prominence as the “official chaplain of Colbert Nation.” That is, as a frequent guest on the old Colbert Report, discussing religion with fellow Irish Catholic Stephen Colbert.

Martin is a Fulton Sheen for the Twitter age. (He has nearly 70,000 followers.) Mixing humor and sincerity, Martin emphasizes the best that religion has to offer, allowing people -- even if only temporarily -- to set aside the negativity that has swirled around Catholicism in recent years. Hence, his optimism.

“Every day I see examples of amazing parishes, amazing pastors and pastoral associates and amazing Catholic lay people. And just look at the reaction to the visit of Pope Francis … I'm a huge fan of this Pope. He seems to have drawn back so many who had previously felt unwelcome,” Martin says.

Martin’s latest book is a novel, his first, entitled The Abbey. The book is about the benefits of a spiritual life, especially for those who have endured terrible loss.

“One morning I woke up after a particularly vivid dream, about a woman whose young son dies and who later finds help and spiritual healing through conversations with a Trappist monk. When I woke up, I thought, That's not a bad story! So I scribbled it down and started writing it the next morning,” he says.

The book follows the mourning Anne and her neighbor Mark, a handyman who works at the Abbey of Saints Philip and James, located outside of Philadelphia, where Martin’s Irish ancestors settled.

“My father's grandfather was named Edward Martin and was from Co. Wexford in a town called Castlebridge,” Martin says.

Perhaps one reason Martin is such a persuasive religious figure is because he knows all too well the rigors of secular life. He attended the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania where he studied economics.

“I wasn't particularly religious at all,” he said, noting he got a well-paying job with General Electric right after graduation.

“I really enjoyed the work, and being young in New York. But over the next few years I started to feel like I was in the wrong place.”

Work, Martin said, “got progressively more stressful, and I found myself more miserable.”

Then, he happened to watch a TV documentary about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

“His life seemed much more fulfilling than mine. So I read his autobiography, and eventually asked a parish priest about joining the priesthood. He said, ‘You might as well talk to the Jesuits at Fairfield University.’ When I did everything clicked.”

So how does Martin manage to make a tainted institution such as the church seem so appealing?

“It's always best to start with the basics. And when it comes to Catholicism, the basics aren't the hot-button issues that so many in the media keep talking about, or the rules and regulations,” Martin feels.

“The basic…is a person: Jesus Christ. Start with that. Then let the rest come in its own time. “

He adds, “Remember that no community is perfect -- certainly not the Catholic Church. It's always been a place of saints and sinners. But it's also a place where you will meet Jesus Christ. So just on that count it's all worth it.”

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