“I always wanted to be close to Jesus. That’s why I’m doing all this.” That’s how Fr. James Martin, SJ, the well-known Jesuit priest and bestselling author, explains the motivations for his increasingly prominent LGBT ministry. The work began in 2016, after the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, during which 49 people were killed. In the days and weeks following the tragedy, Martin became incensed at the Church’s apparent indifference to gays, lesbians, and their parents. So he embarked on a project of healing and repair for Catholics who feel shut off from their Church. “It’s not a question of making them Catholic,” says Fr. Martin. “They already are.”
One of the earliest fruits of Martin’s efforts was his 2018 book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. The book invited intense praise and fierce criticism among opposing factions of the Church’s culture wars, but Martin’s message of inclusivity and his call for respectful dialogue resonated broadly with ordinary American Catholics. The text has since been translated into many foreign languages. The new movie about Martin’s ministry, also called Building a Bridge, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival late last year. (Directed by Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post and produced by Martin Scorsese, it’s now available to stream on AMC+.) The impact of the book and the film, together with Martin’s popularity, suggest that this could be a moment of truth for the Church, gently nudging it toward greater inclusion.
As the film opens, we see Martin watering plants on the rooftop of his Jesuit residence near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. He prunes and plants and sees how the flowers grow every morning—a visual metaphor of his Ignatian spirituality. The camera then follows his walk across town to the offices of America Media on Sixth Avenue in Midtown. People recognize him, stopping him to say “thank you,” or asking for a hug. This, in the city where supposedly no one knows your name. Martin smiles at everyone, and they smile back.
When he’s not writing in the office, Martin speaks at packed parishes and lecture halls across the country. He also visits families in their homes for dinner. He’s busy, but never rushed, and seemingly has time for everyone. When parents tell Martin that they stopped going to Mass after their children were rejected by the Church, his message is simple and unassuming: he assures them they are good parents, and that God loves both them and their children.
Martin also gives excellent spiritual advice. In one scene, an anguished mother whose son was murdered tells Martin she can no longer pray. He asks whether she has tried praying to Jesus’ mother—after all, Mary’s son had been executed, too. In another scene, an anxious college student tells Martin about her fear of coming out to her parents. “They talk badly about it,” she says. Nodding with understanding, Martin assures her, “Part of it is giving them time. I’m sure they love you, but they don’t know how. So, you may be farther ahead than they are on this. God loves you, you do know that.” As Martin offers her a hug, the girl weeps with relief. “It will be okay,” Martin says. “It will take some time, but it will be okay.”