One of the exciting things about being a priest, especially a Jesuit priest, is that we are not always sure what kind of situations we might find ourselves in that demand our ministerial skills. The recent General Congregation spoke several times, as has the Pope, about how often as Jesuits we are especially called to be on the “frontiers” of faith and culture. Some of my most privileged moments of connecting with people have been outside of typical “church” contexts. Traveling from one place to another, for example, you never know what kind of need you might encounter. Often there’s a chance to help someone, or listen to their story in a way that is part of my priestly vocation, even if that person doesn’t even know that I’m a priest (I don’t wear clerics 24/7). But I also like it when I’m with a group of people, my fellow German language students one summer, for example, in which I just happen to be a priest sharing an experience with them. A lot of the time the fact that I’m a priest doesn’t make a difference, but there are times that it does. There are the conversations—what’s it like? And there are the times when people do have a need to talk about something, or ask for help, and they know that I’m someone who they can probably count on.
I’ve noticed recently that I run into a lot of people that I would term “religiously indifferent.” They’re not hostile toward God or religion. And they are often very good people. However, for some reason, it hasn’t occurred to them that God should be a part of their life. It makes me wonder what it would be like to be “chaplain” to a group of people that one is not typically chaplain to. Like bikers, circus performers, journalists, buskers, CEOs or something like that. Those are interesting “frontiers” one could explore!
Father Jim Martin has offered a peek into just such an experience in his bookA Jesuit Off-Broadway. Don’t let the title fool you. This isn’t a light-hearted reminiscence on one Jesuit’s brief dalliance with the New York theatre world. It is a remarkably engaging and often deeply moving account of being a priest on the frontiers of faith and culture, of finding God in new and surprising ways. He almost seamlessly moves from his account to being theological advisor to the off-broadway production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot to reflections on some of the most profound theological questions, and does so by showing us how the troupe of actors which he came to know and love struggled with those same questions. Fr. Martin admits to being a little star-struck at first, especially having the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the play’s director. But he soon enough got over that to see how real these people were, and how serious they were about honoring the lives and beliefs of the characters they were portraying—Saint Monica, Saint Thomas the Apostle, Judas, Jesus, Mother Teresa, etc. As his story progresses, we witness not only the sometimes uncomfortable birth of a work of art, we see how Fr. Martin and the cast are transformed by the experience. All this is placed in the context of the Christian tradition in a revealing and enlightening way, and as one continues to read, one starts to feel as if they know and love this group of people, just as Father Jim comes to know and love them too. And one sees how the Spirit works in varied and surprising ways because a priest has been introduced into what at first seems a “foreign” context, but which eventually is revealed by compelling portraits of each of the cast members, as a place—a holy place—not so foreign at all. I think I’ve become one of this book’s biggest fans.
One of the most moving parts of the book for me, came at the very beginning, in the foreword by the playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis. He explains:
“I asked many questions that, perhaps, one is not supposed to ask, and, on occasion, Father Jim would reply with answers that perhaps he was not supposed to give. I tried to—and needed to—leave no stone unturned, and Father Jim, secure in his faith and his priesthood, never did anything but supply direct answers to pointed questions. And he did so kindly, thoughtfully, and with both a passion for the subject and a wealth of com-passion for me—his confused, often irate and disconsolate lapsed Catholic Interrogator. In short, he was everything I think a Priest should be: caring, thoughtful, strong, unimpeachable—and up for the challenge. In short, I have no doubt that Father Jim is one of Jesus’ true soldiers. And trust me: I’m not the doubt-free type. I drown in doubt, and to the degree that that’s true, Father Jim, from our first meeting and right up to today, is slowly teaching me to swim.”