The Rest of the Story: On the Road with James Martin, SJ

by | Mar 11, 2014 | Uncategorized

Editor’s note: TJP published an exclusive excerpt from Jim’s new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

Long before he became the media’s go-to person for All Things Catholic, long before he began convincing the media that words “Catholic” and “fun” could exist in the same sentence, long before he became the chatty “chaplain” of “The Colbert Report,” and long before he became the “best-selling author” of accessible and interesting books about almost everything, I knew Jim Martin.

Jim, who is publicly known by the slightly longer and possibly more dignified “James Martin, S.J.” entered the Jesuit novitiate a year after me.  Thus in Jesuitese, he was my “primi” or first year novice.  I was among the more spiritually advanced (at least we liked to think so) second year novice class called  “secundi.”

Jim “entered” the novitiate with two others; one left after a few months and the other novice, Bill Campbell, remains in our company and, like Jim, is a prayerful man of great talent.  Unlike Jim though, he’s an introvert, so his many gifts (and thoughts) have gone largely unpublished.

Jesus-A-PilgrimageI liked Jim from the start.  He came to the novitiate excited and open to the experience, just like a kid going to Fenway Park for the first time.  His parents and sister, who accompanied him on “entrance day” seemed decidedly less enthusiastic. I remember being amused by their skeptical facial expressions, especially his mother, who seemed like she was leaving her son off at an Ashram full of shaven-headed Hari Krishnas. His father seemed to take it all in with his characteristically jocular manner.  I quickly learned that Jim was a delightful combination of the two – his father’s corny sense of humor combined with his mother’s acerbic wit.

Jim’s family was “Culturally Catholic.” Coming from the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia they seemed a bit wary of the Jansenistic Boston-Irish Jesuits who had lured their son from a lucrative post-Wharton School career in the corporate world to the austere puritanical backwoods of New England.

Jim was a curious combination of Philly piety combined with a pronounced “unchurched” side–he wasn’t really sure if there were four or five Gospels and I’m reasonably certain he thought that Peter, Paul & Mary and Ben & Jerry were the first disciples.  But what he lacked in theological precision he made up for in pious devotion.  Sort of like, “I don’t know exactly what it is I believe, but I sure believe it!”

Jim made me laugh from day one.  We share a similar dry sense of humor, though mine admittedly was a bit more cynical at that time.  The novitiate was fun with Jim and Bill, and we laughed a lot.

Fr. James Martin, SJ near the Sea of Galilee

“I shall make you fishers of men,” said Jesus when he saw Fr. Jim in this hat.

Fast-forward 25 years or so – we have remained good friends, in fact I am proud to count myself as one of Jim’s 5,000 closest friends!1 In his new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, he says that I suggested coming along with him to Israel when he told me about  his plans to go the Holy Land and experience first hand the land in which Jesus had lived.  I seem to remember it more that he invited me – especially since my first trip to Israel in 2000 had left me somewhat less than enchanted with the “Holy Land.”

Either way, the thought of traveling with Jim sounded like fun from the start.  So despite my reservations about heat, noisy, crowded and commercialized pilgrimage sites, fractious natives, and the ever-present threat of thermonuclear Armageddon, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity of traveling with Jim.  Personally I would have chosen Hawaii or New Zealand, over Israel, but I just couldn’t convince Jim that Jesus had actually been born in Maui. Clearly he has learned a bit more about the Bible since the novitiate.

In the back of my mind of course was the thought that whatever I said or did on that trip might make it into Jim’s book; because there was NO WAY he wouldn’t turn this trip into his Magnum Opus. One does not simply travel with Jim Martin and not appear in a book.


From the outset, Jim was much more excited visiting the Holy Land than I was.  Having been to Israel already, I suggested we spend as little time as possible in Jerusalem, and as much time as possible in Galilee.  I had vivid memories of the claustrophobic “holy sites” jam packed with tourist-pilgrims who seemed far more intent on filming every second of their visit than, oh I don’t know, “praying.”   I am still haunted by memories of the unspeakable kitsch that is sold at every souvenir shop.  There were far too many replica “crowns of thorns.”What the hell would you do with one?  In my worst flashbacks I still see glow-in-the-dark rosary beads large enough to choke Goliath.

Jim’s excitement, on the other hand, was so intense that I feared that he might fall victim to the dreaded “Jerusalem Syndrome.” This strange psychological phenomenon has afflicted seemingly sane people, who, after visiting Jerusalem, experience some sort of psychotic episode in which they begin to believe they are a religious prophet or person from the Bible or Qur’an.  I had a fear that at some point I might have to tackle the Prophet Jim, restrain Moses Martin or worst of all, detain

Jesus Jim in front of the Western Wall (or God-forbid, at the Dome of the Rock).  Being stoned to death or beheaded would have completely ruined our whole vacation, not to mention the possibility of a book about the pilgrimage.2

The Bay of Parables

The Bay of Parables

Fortunately, despite his excitement, he never had any clear psychotic breaks with reality and his zeal helped us find some of the most obscure places in Israel.  For a great example you can read this section from the book on the “Bay of Parables.”  By following a German priest’s directions to look for “purple rocks,” we discovered a rocky beach that looked exactly like every other part of the shore of the Sea of Galilee, complete with dead fish smell and flies.  Yet to Jim, it was a revelation.  He was so excited I half expected him to run out on the water.  I wondered if the Jerusalem Syndrome would get him after all.

His excitement was infectious and, despite myself, as we moved along the shore of the Sea of Galilee in 100 degree heat with 90 percent humidity, I occasionally got a glimpse of what he was seeing–the very places that Jesus would have seen.  A landscape that despite the roads, telephone poles and banana plantations, was pretty much what it must have looked like in30 A.D.

Jim sees the world with the eyes of an artist, and it shows in his descriptions of the places we visited.  As in the novitiate, he made me laugh every day and helped me see the Holy Land in a way that I would have missed had I gone there alone with my preconceived ideas.  His book captures the experience beautifully.

If you get a copy of Jim’s new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage,  you’ll notice that the cover features an olive branch. I can’t help but think that this cover was inspired by a comment I made on the Mount of Olives.

“I’m on the Mount of Olives. And I know I’m supposed to be thinking pious thoughts. But all I can think about is how much I’d like a martini with olives right now.”

And now you know the rest of the story.

Editor’s note: For an exclusive TJP excerpt from Jim’s new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage click here.

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  1. That is of course according to the modern version of the Oracle of Delphi… Facebook.
  2. Even though a well-publicized martyrdom might increase book sales, Jim’s friends love him too much to let that happen!

George Williams, SJ   /   All posts by George