True confessions: James Martin discusses his take on ‘Heavenly Bodies’ exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute

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Before taking on Catholicism as a museum motif, Andrew Bolton turned to a Jesuit priest for a little extra guidance.

James Martin, a well-known writer and editor-at-large at America magazine, linked up the Costume Institute’s curator-in-charge with his Vatican contacts and tried to offer an objective view of the exhibition. While “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” may appeal to many of the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, the exhibition will indubitably stir up some critics, as religion-themed art often does. Martin, who has just released an updated version of his book “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity,” talked to WWD about his involvement with the Met and Catholic church today.

WWD: The Catholic church has been in the news a lot lately. How, if at all, do you think this may make people look differently at Catholicism?


James Martin: I hope it helps them to realize the influence the Catholic imagination has on art. The Catholic imagination is very broad and includes not only priests and sisters working in the slums in the poorest countries, but also artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio creating great works of art for the church. So the Catholic church is very much both/and. It is not either the people, who work with the poor, or a church that influences art. It’s both. I would suspect that most people who are going to a show like this are pretty sophisticated and already understand the place of the church in art history.

WWD: How was working with the Met?

J.M.: I was so impressed with Andrew Bolton and his team. They were tremendous. Highly intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful, well-read — you couldn’t ask for a better person to curate this, truly. I speak to him and sometimes it’s like speaking to a theologian. He’s read up on Catholic teaching. He understands theology as beauty. He’s a very smart guy. I’m also happy to say he’s Jesuit educated so that’s a plus, too. He’s also just a nice guy. That goes a long way.

WWD: What do you think Pope Francis would make of “Heavenly Bodies,” since he has somewhat eschewed material possessions? (He took a vow of poverty on becoming a member of the Jesuit order in 1960.)

J.M.: Cardinal [Gianfranco] Ravasi, who is his point man on culture, appeared at the opening [preview] in Rome with Anna Wintour. So he understands the need to engage culture and he’s a person very much in the world. But not as we say, of the world. I think anything that enables people to see the church in a different light is probably helpful. He’s obviously not a pope who is going to wear a three-tiered bejeweled tiara, as popes used to. But that’s part of our history, so I think he would be fine with it. Remember, he works in the Vatican so he sees pieces of art all the time.

WWD: How has “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity” been updated?


J.M.: There is about 40 percent new material, a new intro, more stories from LGBT Catholics, responses to questions about my earlier book, more facts and figures, and more spiritual reflections at the end. The main addition is more stories from people.…There was some confusion among people who read the first edition where the main responsibility for building bridges really fell. It falls on the church, the institutional church — not the LGBT community. It’s a two-way bridge but the onus is on the institutional church. It is they who have marginalized LGBT people, not the other way around. When I talked about conversion in the original book, I meant the conversion that we are all called to by God, conversion of minds and hearts. Some people thought I was talking about conversion therapy, which [laughs] I was not. Answer questions about why I didn’t talk about questions like same-sex marriage, for example, which I did not. I wanted to talk more about dialogue and prayer. Mainly, it was these stories that I had heard that were so compelling and beautiful, and like parables for me. A story, as we know, really opens up our minds in a way that an argument, a debate or definition does not, which was one of the main reasons that Jesus spoke with stories. I thought by adding more stories, I could invite people to see things a little differently.

WWD: What do you say to people who say the church is not accepting of LGBT people?

J.M.: It depends who’s asking. Often I say, “What part of the church?” The parish next-door-to-me, St. Paul the Apostle, is extremely accepting. They have an LGBT outreach group, retreats. If you say, “My local priest.” I say, “Well, that’s not the whole church. The church is also the people, too.” To use the expression of the second Vatican Council, it’s the whole people of God. Part of the church may not be accepting, but there are parts of the church that are very accepting. It’s also a journey. It’s a reasonable question though. I often say to people, “Sometimes God loves you and your church is learning to love you.” You can also point to Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark. He had a welcome mass for LGBQ people in the cathedral in Newark last year. That’s a huge welcome but other church leaders that are not so welcoming. That’s one reason why we need a conversation.

WWD: What do you think of the coverage of Pope Francis’ apology?

J.M.: The recent one last week? It was tremendous. It shows someone who is a real Christian who was able to say, “I’m sorry” and listen to people. What was highly significant about that meeting with Chilean victims of abuse was that he spent more time with them than he does with even heads of state. With one man, I believe, he spent three hours. That’s fantastic. Here is someone who is able to say, “I made a mistake.” When the sex abuse crisis first hit the news in 2001, 2002, if bishops had responded in this way — we’ve made mistakes, I’m sorry, meeting with victims — rather than lawyering up the church would be in a lot better place. But as in any organization, they sometimes listen to the wrong advice. They were really confused about what to do and had all these experts saying, “No, don’t talk to victims.” But the pope is responding as a pastor. Great.

WWD: Will you be at the opening?


J.M.: I will be at the cocktail party part. I don’t know if that counts.