Preaching From a Digital Pulpit

Father Jim Martin

Father Jim Martin

What is the one thing that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Statue of Liberty, and actress Lena Dunham have in common? They all have fewer Facebook followers than Father Jim Martin, a New York-based Jesuit priest, who has more than 400,000.

Father Martin sat on a sofa in the corner of his spacious Manhattan office, dressed in black trousers, black shirt, and white collar. He started his day at a gym in midtown, near the building where he lives and also works—editing a magazine published by Jesuits. Then he returned home to pray.

He was at his desk at 9 a.m., sharp, just as he was every morning when he used to work for General Electric in the 1980s. The first thing he does after he has turned on his desktop computer has long been a part of his daily routine: social media. Father Martin, when he joined Facebook, initially encountered some dismissive attitudes from his fellow clergymen in New York. But he persevered and, he says, Catholics who know him have embraced his active social media presence. “My line is, ‘If it wasn’t beneath Jesus to talk about the birds of the earth. Then it’s not beneath us to tweet’,” he said.

After Father Martin tweets out a morning homily—a spiritual message—he will post several times on Facebook and publish at least one photograph on Instagram. It was his book publisher who first advised him to open a public Facebook account. The number of people who follow his page has grown exponentially in the eight years since. Social media can be viewed as a form of religious communication, said Father Martin, and as an act of faith—one that Jesuits call a ministry. Martin says he finds common ground with his followers on social media through posts ranging from pop culture to theological questions about the Catholic faith, all in his mission to spread the teachings of the Jesuits. This openness, he says, is a way to connect his own life with the lives of others.

He is not the only member of the Catholic clergy using social media, of course. Last year Pope Francis installed a cross-platform Secretary for Communications in the Vatican and last month the Pope opened an Instagram account. The Pope used Twitter to promulgate his highly anticipated declaration on the family and the Roman Catholic Church—called The Joy of Love—that he published on April 8.

“The goal of the Vatican social media strategy is certainly in line with its triple mission of government, teaching, and sanctification of Christians around the world,” said Daniel Arasa, an expert on Roman Catholic communications and Associate Professor in Communications at the Pontifical University in Rome. “In order to do that, the different instruments of social media help the diffusion of the Church’s teaching, embodied in the Pope’s role.”

Martin grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from U-Penn’s Wharton Business School. Several subsequent years as a well-paid employee at General Electric during the 1980s in and around New York did not make Father Martin happy. A high-flying job did not alter his dissatisfaction with life, he said, and took a huge toll on the young man. He had been, by his own admission, raised a lukewarm Catholic. But this soon changed after he started going to meetings with a local group of Jesuits. I realized I could be a Jesuit priest and writer, journalist, and educator, he said. At a particularly difficult time, his therapist asked him: If you could do anything what would you?

“I said I would be a Jesuit,” said Martin. He was ordained in 1999.

Martin’s religious outlook and method of preaching follow the Jesuit traditions of education and innovation. Jesuits are famous for running universities across the world. But they are also famous for writing, and this form of communication has always been a revered method of proclaiming the gospel. Saint Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits (also known as the Society of Jesus), bought a printing press in 1556.

Father Martin is the editor in chief of America, a national magazine for American Catholics published by Jesuits. His writing has appeared in almost every major national newspaper, and he appeared more than once on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. He has also written a number of books on faith and one recently about Jesus’s time on the cross.

But it is his social media persona that has given him an online following that extends beyond the border, from the Mexico to Sri Lanka. The digital publication Buzzfeed even published a prayer in 2015 he wrote about the snow storm in Boston: “Almighty God, who made the green grass on the Fenway, the blue waters of Dorchester Bay, and the tan sands on the Cape, we have a simple prayer: Enough with the snow already.”

Martin wants the church to be as welcoming a place as possible. To help make that possible, his voice in the digital space is a reflection of his own: funny and serious at the same time.

Martin tweeted a ten-step strategy for the pope to run a successful Instagram account after the Pope launched his in March. He even warned the pope against the appearing vain.

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The pope’s penchant for posting on social media gave Father Martin even more of an excuse to use social media, he says, “I feel like it has given me permission to do what I was already doing,” he said. The pope, in fact, was ranked as the most effective world leader on social media for 2015 with an average of more than 9,000 retweets per tweet, according to a Twiplomacy study on the power of social media on global diplomacy. The pope has the second most followers on Twitter, behind Barack Obama. “For many diplomats, Twitter has become a powerful channel for digital diplomacy and 21st century statecraft and not all Twitter exchanges are diplomatic—real world differences are playing out on Twitter and sometimes end up in hashtag wars between embassies and foreign ministries,” wrote Matthias Lüfkens, author of the Twiplomacy report.

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The pope shies away from the sort of pop culture references made by Father Martin. In the priest’s posts, Downton Abbey and David Bowie have both come under scrutiny for their spiritual significance. But Martin and the pope have both used social media to disseminate their positions on important religious matters. Father Martin views himself, although he is reluctant to use a label, as a progressive priest. He’s made some important statements that have gone viral, especially one on homosexuality: “The Catholic church must do a much better job of teaching what the Catechism says: that we should treat our LGBT brothers and sisters with respect, sensitivity, and compassion,” he wrote on Facebook on June 26, 2015. Almost 400,000 people liked the post and almost 140,000 shared it. Father Martin said he acts as a go between for the media, the church, and its congregation.

“One of the things we do here is we say we explain the church to the world,” he says. “And the world to the church.”