The Lay Centre is pleased to welcome Jesuit Father James Martin December 1. The best-selling author agreed to a brief interview with The Lay Centre, ahead of his lecture on the theme, “Encountering the Real Jesus: Understanding the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.”
Lay Centre: What is bringing you to Rome at the start of December?
Father Martin: Other than the talk at The Lay Centre, which I’m very much looking forward to, I’ve helped to arrange a screening of Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Silence,” for the Jesuits in Rome during the week. Also, I’m meeting with some Jesuits and Vatican friends to catch up a bit. I don’t know Rome very well, so it’s always very exciting for me to visit.
Lay Centre: Focusing on the theme you will be addressing during your lecture at The Lay Centre, what are the three biggest challenges to inviting people to encounter Christ today?
Father Martin: First, a general unfamiliarity with the Gospels. One of the primary ways we meet Jesus is through the New Testament, but even many devout Catholics may be unfamiliar with the Gospels. So that is a definite barrier, at least for Catholics.
Second, many people tend to see Jesus through the lens of the church, and so if their church — whatever denomination it may be — does something that they disagree with, they may feel distanced from Jesus. It’s very unfortunate.
Third, secularization means that many people are very suspicious of the “supernatural,” and so things like Jesus’ miracles, for example, are not accepted or appreciated. That is, an overly rational mindset means that some people are not willing to meet Jesus the Miracle Worker, or Jesus the Risen One. Essentially, the miracles and the Resurrection, which are absolutely essential to understanding him, and therefore encountering him, are set aside.
Lay Centre: The title of your talk, “Encountering the Real Jesus,” seems to suggest there is a “fake Jesus” out there as well. Who is the “fake Jesus” people may be confused by?
Father Martin: The “fake Jesus” is, you might say, the one who is only divine, or only human. In my book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, I try to remind people that we need to reflect on both his humanity and his divinity. Too often Jesus is seen as only human. That makes him a man pretending to be God. Or he is seen as only divine. That makes him God pretending to be a man. Many people — believers and otherwise — tend to gravitate to only one of his “natures.”
Interestingly, the “fake Jesus” is the one that the Early Church was so intent on avoiding, by constantly reminding people to keep in tension both of his “natures.”
Lay Centre: Who is the “real Jesus” and how might people encounter him?
Father Martin: The real Jesus is the fully human, fully divine one. The one who not only spent time walking the landscape of the first-century world and lived an earthy human life, but the one who performed miracles, rose from the dead and is present to us through the Spirit. We can encounter him in many ways. First, through the Gospels, by coming to know his story. Second, through prayer, through the sacraments and through the Eucharist. And, third, through our companionship and friendship with our fellow human beings, especially the poor.
Remember, he’s risen and alive to us through the Spirit. So he is “encounterable.” As Jesuits like to say, we can “find God in all things.” We can do the same with Jesus.
Lay Centre: How important is the experience of community in encountering the “real Jesus”?
Father Martin: It’s essential. Remember, Jesus called together a group of Apostles. We tend to overlook this, but Jesus could have just as easily — if he wanted to — called a single person to help him, for example, Peter. Instead he called together a group of people. Why? One reason may have been that he needed a group around him — Jesus was human, after all, and needed companionship and support. Another reason is that Jesus understood that the Apostles and the disciples needed one another. They needed one another both during his earthly ministry, and after his earthly ministry was complete.
We are naturally social beings. And so it is for us. We find Jesus in the midst of community. What does that mean, practically? We find him in our church communities, in our groups of friends, and in those with whom we minister. It also means that we are called to worship together, not simply alone in our rooms. We pray in our rooms with the doors closed, but we also pray in churches with the doors open.
And as a friend of mine once said, “There’s a reason all those stories about the Holy Spirit happen to groups!”
Lay Centre: What have you observed of the millennial generation and their relationship with Jesus? How interested are they in encountering Christ and what challenges do they face in embracing him as Savior?
Father Martin: There are as many ways for them to encounter Jesus, as there are for generations ahead of them. Some millennials reach him through community service, some through theological study, some through campus retreats, some through communal worship, and so on. Just like their parents and grandparents did. But I do sense that one thing very important to them is authenticity. They are, as far as I can see, particularly interested in religious communities and leaders who are authentic. This is one reason I think Pope Francis speaks to them so clearly. Those who are in authority who do not seem to embody Christian values of love, mercy and forgiveness — from any Christian denomination — tend not to be listened to by millennials.
And they are, to answer your question, desperate to encounter Jesus. So much of their lives today is in flux, is confusing, is changing, and they long for some place of security and comfort. Now, we know that Jesus doesn’t simply offer us comfort — he encourages us to shake things up as well. But in my experience millennials are looking to be centered, and centered on Christ.
The millennial generation could be one of the most fruitful of all Christian generations because they accept Jesus on their own terms. That is, they come to him in a highly personal way — different from older Christians, who may come from a strong Christian family where acceptance of Jesus is a given, and different from someone who comes to him because that’s what they’re expected to do. And in coming to him on their own terms, Jesus makes a stronger claim on the millennials. Thus, their faith is more of a personal decision, and therefore a stronger one.