Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
Anyone who watches Fox News knows the face of Father Jonathan Morris, the Catholic priest and author (The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts and newest book is God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help) who comments regularly on issues of faith and ethics in the news. Father Morris, who was a consultant on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, first became known to TV audiences in 2005 when he was called on to assist the secular media in its coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent election of Pope Benedict XVI. His latest challenge is taking the reins of SiriusXM’s popular Catholic Channel.
I recently spoke with Father Morris about his life and eclectic ministry. Here are some highlights:
JWK: You come from a family of seven kids.
FATHER JONATHAN MORRIS: That’s right.
JWK: And you’re third.
FJM: That’s right.
JWK: And you studied political science in Costa Rica.
FJM: That’s right.
JWK: And you studied business at Franciscan University in Ohio.
JWK: And you were vice president of your student government.
FJM: I was. Wow. Not many people know that. Together with my older brother who was the president.
JWK: Kind of like the Kennedys – where one was president and one was attorney general.
FJM: Yes. I remember the president of the university, Fr. Michael Scanlan, told us “Don’t do it. You will never win. Nobody is gonna vote for a brother-brother team. It was fun.
JWK: How did you go from that background to feeling the call to the priesthood?
FJM: I had never thought about being a priest while I was growing up. My parents were very strong Catholic Christians and they had imbued in us a very simple understanding of the purpose of life and what this was all about. And that was to serve God and to love other people. And to dedicate our lives to improving life for others. And getting to heaven. But they never pushed us in any specific direction.
My dad’s a lawyer. Lawyers are all in my family…I remember asking him…if we were rich or not or something like that as a young kid. And he explained to us “Mom and I have a budget. And anything that I make more than what the budget stipulates we give away.” That left a deep impression on me because I recognized that he was living for something besides self. He was living for something besides wealth, power, authority, prestige. He was living for eternity.
And so when I finished high school and then going into college, I decided to take a year and go to Central America. I had decided previously that I was going to study business and go to law school. While I was in Central America and seeing the poor and living with the poor and seeing the way they lived life and what their ambitions were and (how those ambitions) were different than mine, I started to reevaluate my own priorities…Instead of going to the University of Michigan, I decided to go to the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) where I thought there’d be an environment that would be more beneficial to my own faith walk. It turns out it was…
My roommate in college (was interested in becoming) a priest. I would encourage him in that direction because, I thought to myself, “If he wants to be a priest maybe it’s God calling him and his decision, one way or the other, will have major consequences on people.” I would encourage him when we would go out on double dates with girls in the school and everything. I would remind him “Remember…”
One day he introduced me to a very good priest who invited both of us on a spiritual retreat. We went on the retreat. One thing led to another…(During) a pre-seminary discernment time I visited him…(Eventually) he decided he was going to leave. I ended up staying.
JWK: A little twist in the plot, there.
FJM: That’s right. And I was dating a girl at this time for about two years. I told him, when I decided to stay, to take care of her and make sure she came back to finish her last year in college. And he said he would. One thing led to another and they got married.
JWK: That’s a movie right there.
FJM: Yeah, it was amazing. They have eight kids now. I’ve baptized most of their kids. They’re good friends of mine.
JWK: That’s a sweet story. So then, you became a priest.
FJM: I did.
JWK: And you went to Rome.
FJM: I did. After a few years…I went to Rome, studied theology, (did) a master’s degree in Moral Theology. It was during that time that I got involved in the making of The Passion of the Christ and then got into media from that.
JWK: What was it like working with Mel Gibson on The Passion of the Christ?
FJM: It was fascinating because when I got involved in the beginning there was no clarity whatsoever that this movie was going to be a success. It was the first time Mel Gibson faced ridicule. He was used to being “The Sexiest Man Alive.” He was used to being praised as one of the great actors of all time. And, all of a sudden, he was being ridiculed and nobody wanted to touch the film. (There was) no distributor of the film, no investors to speak of…but he felt like he needed to make this, that this was a mission from God…And so I saw him at very nervous points in his life.
I started advising from a theological perspective on the script – to make sure that there was nothing in the script that was anti-Gospel or that had some sort of agenda other than telling the story of the Gospel. And then my involvement got increased by helping promote the film…
There were so many people speaking negatively about the film without ever having seen it. We set up a strategy in which…we would invite opinion makers to watch and exclude only those who have already spoken negatively without having seen it based on a…standard of intellectual honesty. Anybody (could) come to these opinion-maker pre-screenings as long as they hadn’t spoken about something they had not yet seen. And it worked. (We) traveled to (about) twenty countries in a matter of thirty days and showed it to audiences. It was a fascinating time.
JWK: How did you feel about the charges of anti-Semitism that were leveled at the film?
FJM: Well, I didn’t think that it was an anti-Semitic film.
JWK: What was Mel Gibson like to work with?
FJM: He is a tremendously talented creative individual who, unfortunately, is also a conflicted personality. He himself would say that. He ended up making some bad decisions. That doesn’t take away, I don’t think, the fact that he did this (film) as a response to something he believed God wanted him to do and (that it) was a blessing to many people.
JWK: So, the Passion of the Christ brought you into the world of the media.
FJM: Right. So then shortly after that John Paul II became sick and was passing away. The media descended upon Rome where I was studying and teaching and they were looking for people to comment on John Paul II, on his life, about the Catholic Church, about the election of the new pope. I started working first with CNN and then with Fox News.
JWK: And you received a lot of accolades for how you conducted yourself and that resulted in job offers. How come you decided to go with Fox News?
FJM: I went to Fox just because they were interested in having me speak about things from my perspective that were not specifically Catholic. So, it wasn’t just talking about the pope. As I studied moral theology and ethics, I had interest in talking about (various) news items from my perspective. Fox just had an interest in that.
JWK: So what was that period like in Rome when the pope was dying. What was that like for you?
FJM: It was a great teaching moment. During three weeks or so, the whole world was focused on the Vatican, specifically the life of a man that was almost universally considered to be (bigger) than life. We don’t have that many heroes of holiness in our present day that are presented in the media as such.
JWK: And then the books followed (The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts and God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help). How would you describe what you’re trying to get across in your writing?
FJM: I find that even though we live in a society that many would consider secular – for example here in New York City but throughout the whole country – there is a tremendous amount of faith and goodwill. People are searching for reasons for believing, searching for answers to the big existential questions of “Why am I here?” and “What is life all about?” I find that people are able to accept the teaching of the Gospel when it’s presented to them in both a rational and positive way. Yes, I believe in God’s judgment but I also believe that He is first and foremost our Father and our Savior and that if He’s willing to send His Son…to die for the sake of our redemption than how much more should we as Christians be willing reach out to people where they’re at to help them along. And so I find that, in my books, and in the television work that I do, just having an awareness of God’s mercy and compassion for us is a great motivation for us to be merciful and compassionate to other people and to take steps toward encountering God.
JWK: Would you say that secular self-help books lack that dimension?
FJM: You know, the most recent book I wrote is God Wants You to Be Happy. The subtitle is From Self- Help to God’s Help. I find that self-help books can be very helpful to people but, in the end, divorced from God, they are eventually very disappointing.
That said, I do believe that we have what we could call…mechanisms for self improvement within our very selves — the gifts of our mind and our intellect , our will, our imagination. If we cultivate those things – those gifts from God – in a proper way they will help us get to a point (in) which we’re then ready for the Grace of God. So, self-help, in my opinion, (utilizes) those natural mechanisms God has giving to us to prepare us for the Grace of God. In other words, if I (use my will) to get up off the couch every day and go on into work, I’m in a better position to receive the Grace of God and have my soul transformed by the Grace of God than if I stayed on the couch all day. But that second part — the Grace of God — is so important and so many self-help books simply deny it or ignore it. That second part is what I call God’s help – the transformation of our souls into holy beings.
JWK: How did your new role as program director of The Catholic Channel on SiriusXM come about?
FJM: I had been approached by a radio network to do a syndicated daily radio show…I approached Cardinal Dolan about it and asked him if he wanted me to do it. He said “Yes.” Then he came back to me and said “Actually I would like you to (work at) The Catholic Channel on SiriusXM instead. You don’t say no to Cardinal Dolan.
JWK: Do you have your own show on the Catholic Channel schedule?
FJM: I don’t.
JWK: Are you going to give yourself a show?
FJM: We’ll see.
JWK: You’re also a parish priest, correct?
FJM: That’s right. I’m at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral down in Soho in Lower Manhattan. It’s a wonderful community filled with young people. People are coming back in big numbers.
JWK: You’re book author, TV commentator, radio program director and a parish priest. How do you balance your various roles?
FJM: I just do my best. I see all of those as opportunities from God. I make sure that I’m doing it not on my own – that I’m getting direction (from) my spiritual bosses, (i.e.) Cardinal Dolan. I’m very happy to be able to do as much as I can to advance the message of the Gospel.
JWK: What do you hope to accomplish at The Catholic Channel?
FJM: I just think we have a wonderful platform here at The Catholic Channel and SiriusXM because we’re able to communicate with people all over the United States and all over Canada and to do it in a creative and interesting way. I hope that we will be able to build (on) all the good that’s already going on here at the channel with the hope of making it (an even) more inspiring (and) impactful medium for spreading the Gospel and bringing people to the Church.
JWK: What’s you take on the media overall?
FJM: I see myself as a Catholic priest and as a Christian – not as a media guy. It just happens to be that I’ve had opportunities in the media. I don’t think St. Paul, for example, who was the Great Evangelizer of the Gentiles, I don’t think he would have missed an opportunity like the media that we have today to spread the Gospel. If, in the future, I’m asked to work in something very different than the media, I would be happy to do that. I don’t consider myself to be on a career path. I don’t consider myself to be a media guy. I’m just a Christian and a Catholic priest.
JWK: How do you parishioners react to having a celebrity priest?
FJM: I’m not a celebrity priest. I’m a priest.
JWK: Can you tell me about your parish?
FJM: The Church is booming. The average age of my parishioners is about 25 years old. We have about 900 coming through on a Sunday…in Soho, arguably the most secular (neighborhood) in the country. I see that as a great sign of the hunger and the thirst of young people today for a clear and (positive) message.
JWK: As a priest dealing with younger people, how do you be both inspirational and forthright about the Church’s problems – particularly those which had been widely reported over the past decade or so?
FJM: You’re referring to the sex scandals and the abuse scandals. At the end, (an) equally-tragic scandal that came about because of the pedophilia and the abuse that took place in the ranks of the clergy and members of the Church was the lack of transparency by the leadership. I find that people – Catholics and non-Catholics – are amazingly open to begin again in their walk with Jesus and in the Church when they hear clarity and honesty — even about difficult things like the scandal. What they don’t put up with, thank God, is dishonesty and cover-up. And so I speak as openly as I possibly can about the difficulties of the Church because we shouldn’t be afraid to call out an abuse of the wonderful gift God gives to us of the Church. When we – its members and its leaders – are imperfect we need to change. We need to begin again. That begins with honesty.
In case you haven’t seen Father Morris in action, here he is on Fox News responding to those who suggest Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is a legitimate issue in the 2012 presidential race.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11