On Thursday September 21, hundreds jammed the at-capacity Robsham Theatre for the first annual Daniel Harrington, SJ Lecture. As a Church speaking heavyweight, Editor at Large of America Magazine, and recent author of Building a Bridge. Fr. James Martin took the stage for a much-anticipated reflection, based on the insights he gained as Harrington’s former pupil, especially Harrington’s years of ministry to all limbs of the Body of Christ.
Fr. Martin viewed Harrington, an expert New Testament scholar, reverently as a person of immense gratitude, generosity, simplicity, and humility, and the one Jesuit who could merit a true case for sainthood. Upon his death from cancer in 2014, the Jesuits apparently joked that “Jesus called Dan to Heaven because He needed him to interpret the meaning of Revelation,” said Martin to a thunderous laugh.
When Fr. Martin experienced a bout with severe carpal tunnel, effectively rendering him unable to type or clutch a pen, he remembered in vivid detail when Harrington granted that he could take his exams orally, adding, “But I will really miss reading your work.” Martin regarded it has the “most kind thing” one has ever said to him—a true characterization of the virtuous Harrington who was able to pierce those he met with love.
While keeping Harrington a constant thread amidst the fabric of his lecture, Fr. Martin transitioned into seven practical and honest lessons he has learned in his own ministry. First, he admitted that one “cannot know everything”—that the response “I have no idea” to an indescribable situation is perfectly valid. Reflecting on his own prayer life, Martin contended that God puts each minister in his or her unique position, choosing him or her before anyone else.
Second, he admitted humbly that “you cannot do everything, either.” Recalling his experience as a minister in the African slums of Nairobi where he aided the local economy, Martin approached his spiritual director to express feeling overwhelmed with all the demands his day required. And, after offering the same you-can’t-do-everything-sentiment, his director uttered frankly, “I have news for you Jim, you’re not Jesus.” Even Christ, as Martin later explained with a sense of comfort, could not minister to all the suffering in the area of his ministry.
Third, highlighting his own ministry at Ground Zero a couple days after those perilous days, Martin contended “you can’t do everything, but you can do something.” This realization gravitated him away from the horrifying prospect of the morgue and to towards the faces of the embattled firefighters and first responders.
Fourth, Martin cited his burgeoning relationship with Church’s LGBT community as evidence that “you can always learn something new.” He found himself in the beginning of his ministry often at a loss of words and stating simply to them: God loves you. “Yeah, we know,” they replied to another roar from the audience.
At what seemed to be the climax of the talk, Martin delved deep into the response surrounding his recent book Building a Bridge. Martin, alongside a plethora of bishops and cardinals, thought the project was “pretty mild.” Martin reflected on the New Testament story in which Christ reveals his Messianic identity to the furious response of his townspeople who angrily try to kill him, later “passing through their midst”. Martin remembered asking Jesus in prayer: “How were you able to do this?” Highlighting his fifth point, Christ revealed to the profound statement, saying, “Must everyone like you?” Martin has realized the liberating truth that in ministry, “You can’t be liked by everyone.”
Sixth, Martin empowered the audience with the affirmation that each and every one of them “can be like Jesus.” Martin questioned why at times people are “mean,” especially when you can always be compassionate; always be kind.
And finally, bringing Harrington back into context, Martin remembered how he believed each member of the audience “were called by God into your ministry.” And for Harrington, who grew up with a stutter like Moses, his remembrance meant considering what the Lord said to Moses: “Who gives one person speech?…Is it not I? Now go, I will assist you in speaking and teach you what you are to say.”
Image Courtesy of Boston College