In Rome, one of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s first acts as Pope Francis was to call his newsdealer back home in Buenos Aires and cancel his daily delivery. In New York, the Rev. Matt Malone seemed reasonably confident that a similar papal ax would not fall on America, the venerable Jesuit weekly that he edits.
“I know for a fact that America is read in the Vatican,” Father Malone said over lunch in a Midtown diner. He had yet to check if the new pope was among his 48,000 subscribers.
“It’s almost certain that he’s seen it,” Father Malone said. “It’s sent to every Jesuit community in the world.”
In Francis, the Roman Catholic Church has its first Jesuit pontiff. Relations between his religious order and headquarters in Rome have often been rocky. Peace has also not always reigned between the Vatican and America magazine, based in New York and once described by a former editor in chief, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, as “the Catholic PBS.” Eight years ago, Father Reese was forced to resign because of Vatican displeasure with articles critical of church positions on sensitive matters like same-sex marriage.
So, Father Malone, is it an article of faith that this new papacy is good for the Jesuits? “It’s uncharted territory,” he said, sipping the first of several cups of coffee. “It’s hard to know how it affects us other than to say we’re very proud. We have a reputation — sometimes earned, sometimes not — for being a little arrogant. We try not to give voice to our pride too much.”
For now, anyway, Francis’s ascension seems to have been a boon for Father Malone’s magazine. During the papal conclave, “we had a huge number of hits on the Web site,” he said, adding, “In fact, it crashed after he was announced, because of the demand.”
Across its 104 years, America has never had a chief editor as young as Father Malone, who was 40 when appointed last June, the same month he was ordained as a priest after a decade of preparation.
Does Father Reese’s unpleasant experience weigh on him? He paused before answering.
“There isn’t a newspaper or magazine that can say everything it wants to say,” he said, adding with a laugh that at America it is usually for want of space. But bear in mind that “we’re not disinterested observers,” he said.
“We are evangelists. I think that America, historically, has gotten into trouble when we have forgotten that part of our identity.”
Father Malone suggested meeting at Park Café, a coffee shop attached to the Hotel Wellington, on Seventh Avenue at 55th Street. It is around the corner from a building on West 56th Street that contains the magazine’s offices and a residence for about 20 Jesuit priests, Father Malone included. This choice was not an act of modesty, he asserted in an e-mail exchange to set up the lunch. “I just have a bland, Irish palate,” he said. “A grilled cheese and French fries is my idea of culinary heaven.”
He lived up to his own billing, ordering grilled cheese on whole wheat, but skipping the fries. In that spirit of abnegation, his tablemate settled for two scrambled eggs.
Jesuits elicit various reactions among Catholics, from a sunny belief that they are the brainiacs of the church to a darker view that they are grand conspirators, too clever by half. “Jesuitical” is not a word always said in admiration. But Father Malone cautioned against sweeping judgments: “There’s an old saying that if you’ve met one Jesuit, you’ve met one Jesuit.”
His embrace of Jesuit life began in his late 20s while he was working in Boston, first at a political research outfit, then at a political journal.
He had grown up in Mashpee, Mass., on Cape Cod — “16 miles and $600 million from the Kennedys” — the fifth of six children in a family of scant means but deep faith. From early on, though, “my great passion was politics,” he said, adding: “It still is in many ways. I followed the U.S. Senate the way my brothers followed the baseball box scores.”
In Boston, Father Malone said, “I literally moved next door to a parish run by the Jesuits.” He became captivated by their “spirituality and way of praying.” He also had an epiphany, if you will, about the political world.
“I never got cynical about politics,” he said. If anything, the church itself is “inherently political,” given that “the demands of the Gospel are of a social nature and not just an individual nature.”
“But I came to feel that change, real change, only happens through the action of grace, a radical movement of the heart,” Father Malone said. “It wasn’t so much that I thought, ‘I’m disillusioned — I’ll go off and be a priest.’ It was very much thinking that I was moving closer to the source of real change.”
“With many of the world’s most intractable problems,” he said, “a kind of radical love and forgiveness is the only solution.”
As for celibacy, an integral part of the deal, it is “very misunderstood,” Father Malone said. He smiled as he imagined the reaction of friends from college days, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. If he had announced he was becoming a celibate Buddhist monk, “they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’ ” he said, “but if I told them I was becoming a Catholic priest, they’d say, ‘What are you, crazy?’ ”
“I think it’s simply understood as a negation of something,” he said. “But in order to make a celibate commitment that’s lasting and healthy, you really have to be oriented by what you’re saying yes to.”
And that is? “Jesus,” Father Malone replied. “Without that dimension, celibacy is unlivable and it’s uncreative.”
Perhaps a failing of the Catholic clergy is that “we are not giving an account of the joy that is within us,” he said. Also troublesome for him is how the American church, which should be “an instrument of unity,” has “thoughtlessly imported” the “extremely partisan, hyper-ideological, very broken public debate” that defines this country’s politics.
For this priest, an enduring model is his own father, John Malone.
In 1984, one of Father Malone’s older brothers, Joe, was killed at age 16 in a road accident. He was riding in a car driven by a friend, Kenny, who had been drinking. Now, at 17, Kenny faced imprisonment for vehicular homicide.
John Malone stood up in court and pleaded for a minimum sentence that involved no jail time. The judge heeded his emotional appeal. Kenny has since “made something of his life,” Matt Malone said. Redemption was real.
He described this in a 2005 article for America: “In my father’s eyes, Joe’s death was Kenny’s doing, but it was not his being.” In the Jesuit son’s eyes, his dad was “the father of mercies.”
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