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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Comiskey

Optical Illusion

Building A Bridge film review

How you tell a story can cover a multitude of sins. Watching Amazon’s documentary on a-not-very-good-book (Fr. James Martin’s Building a Bridge), I nearly forgot about sin altogether.

Smooth and luminous as a saint’s card, Martin is a late-to-ordination Jesuit (Pope Francis’ order), a Wharton grad and former NYC business guy (probably quietly 'gay'-identified but he's not telling) who now advises the Vatican on the art of communication. He’s good at it. He wrote Bridge a few years ago to exhort Catholics to welcome baptized LGBTQ+ citizens back to Church. Martin edits the narrative with finesse, dodging questions about his own sexuality, ‘gay’ marriage and God’s design, and the questionable practice of founding a ‘self’ on disordered desire.

He takes issue with ‘gay’ desire as disordered (Church teaching) while claiming resolute obedience to the Church. He pleads innocence: ‘I am not a theologian’ yet proudly assumes the mantle of prophet (in both the book and film). In truth, he is now the face of powerbrokers throughout the global Church who seek to neutralize LGBTQ+ ‘disorder’ into mere ‘difference.’ Martin is an all-American mirror of Pope Francis’ ‘who I am to judge?’ Smiling with non-judgeyness, he strives to alter Church boundary lines from which we make moral judgments.

Optics are everything. This Martin knows. Leaving his rather flimsy book in the dust, executive producer Martin Scorsese’s camera (yes, that one) frames Fr. Martin as an earth angel: tending a garden atop his Manhattan monastery. Aha, the Church’s early Spring of welcoming the rainbow set! Martin introduced on the air as ‘Chaplain of Colbert nation.’ At last, a cool late-night priest trading barbs with Stephen! Martin humble on the NYC subway and spare in closet space from ‘cell’ overlooking the urban skyline. Pious and poised at the center of the universe! Airy northeastern parishes full of diverse, articulate young people charmed by Martin’s homilies to ‘just be nice’, ‘love your neighbor’ and ‘baptized Catholics don’t need to be made Catholic.’ At last, I can embrace my trans-self or child without conversion!

The counterpoint to Martin’s earth angel is the heavy hand of truth, Michael Voris of St. Michael’s Media/Church Militant. Far from the Manhattan skyline, Voris operates out of a dimly lit studio in small-town Michigan. He is candid about family wounds (caught in swirl of mother’s manic depression) and moral wounds (homosexual history); now a fiery Catholic revert, Voris rightfully asks Martin: ‘Where is the cross, the suffering, the sacrifice that God asks of all authentic Christians?’ Editing is everything. To Martin’s Valjean, Voris emerges as Javert, the reactionary keeper of rules who rants about Martin’s heresies often, on the air. A far cry from the sun-kissed gardener of Manhattan whose credo is love, love, and more love!

While Voris’ devotees at various gatherings appear to be on average no less than 75-years-old, alternately enraged and dazed, Martin elicits floods of pent-up tears from young LGBTQ+ persons who hear from him ‘welcome, the Church loves you just as you are’ for the first time. No nuance, just embracing the prodigal without his or her repentance. Martin’s promise? The Church is repenting to welcome you. Camera cuts to a stern rosary led by Voris and weird army. Which party would you choose?

Optics fail when the camera pans a Philly family of three children whose genders are unidentifiable. Editing cannot hide the dynamics of disorder: the empty father with no words, the overwrought mother ranting about the rejecting Church, all fawning over Martin and the thaw, an early Spring of queer Catholic culture…

We see reality up close and tragic: kids tossed about by a culture intent on robbing them of their birthright as male and female, parents too scared and secular to know better, and Churchmen so worldly that they have lost the heart of the Gospel. ‘The Kingdom of God is here; Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mk 1:15)

Building a Bridge ends with Martin’s meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis, a warm welcome, the early Spring. Chilling for anyone with a conscience. Take heart in stories of authentic conversion, men like Voris (a little rough but heroic—I wouldn’t subject myself to such a cruel editor’s knife). Your story!

We can and must learn something from artful Martin (and Scorsese!). Lead out with the good news of Jesus. He is redeeming our disordered lives. Let us manifest His glory in how Mercy has met us, deeper and deeper with every new season and challenge. The worldly Church needs to hear what Jesus won for us.


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