Exclusive: Best-Selling Author & Jesuit Priest Rev. James Martin, S.J. on Jesuit Education

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This month, best-selling author and Jesuit priest, Rev. James Martin, S.J., will deliver the commencement addresses and receive his 12th and 13th honorary degrees from Loyola University Maryland and the University of Scranton. With these degrees, he will tie the late Tim Russert’s record for honorary degrees from Jesuit colleges and universities.*

Russert, the former host of NBC’s Meet the Press, was a popular commencement speaker at both Jesuit and non-Jesuit institutions; over the course of his life, Russert received 48 honorary degrees from colleges and universities. An alumnus of John Carroll University, he shared a special connection with the thousands of Jesuit-educated students whom he addressed on thirteen separate occasions. During his speech at Boston College in 2004, Russert told graduates, “You've been given an education that says it's not enough to have a skill. Not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts. Values really do matter. Boston College is a Catholic university founded by the Jesuits: Its only justification for existing is because it has a special mission training young men and women to help shape and influence the moral tone and fiber of our nation and our society. And that means now you have a special obligation and responsibility.” 

Like Russert, Martin is a popular figure on television and a best-selling author. He also shares Russert’s penchant for humor, optimism and joy, which come through in Martin’s writings for America, and in his best-selling books, including The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints. And, as was the case with Russert, Martin has a natural ability to connect with students and offer them friendly advice for the next phase of their lives.

In a recent interview with Deanna Howes, Director of Communications for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., Martin described the great joy he receives from visiting Jesuit colleges and universities every spring during commencement season. “To see what wonderful things happen in Jesuit higher education is just a delight for me,” he said. “Last year, I was at Gonzaga University and people came up to me and said what was most exciting about Jesuit education was cura personalis. Another person at Creighton University came up, a parent, and said, ‘Our daughter is so excited about the Magis.’ They really get it and I think that the transmission of Jesuit values and virtues at these institutions of higher education is happening.”

When giving advice to graduates of Jesuit institutions, Martin encourages them to rely on their Jesuit, Catholic and Christian training. For example, the document on reconciliation from the recent General Congregation (GC36), is one that he believes could be helpful to students and serve society at large. And, to Martin, the phrase, ‘men and women for others,’ attributed to Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., former Jesuit Superior General, “really helps to kind of encapsulate not only what we try to do in Jesuit higher education but how a student can take that and bring it to the outside world after graduation.”

Martin also noted the challenges that come with delivering commencement speeches, especially in an era fraught with political and social challenges. “I try not to be too political,” he said. “You focus on what the graduates need to hear, which is a message of hope, some humor and some deprecation; a lot of my message is ‘don’t take yourself too seriously.’ And I don’t think that’s too controversial in most quarters!”

The current record for honorary degrees awarded to an individual belongs to the late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., former president of the University of Notre Dame. Between 1954 and 2002, he received 150 degrees from colleges and universities across the world. Of those 150 degrees, 15 were from Jesuit institutions (full list below).

Tying Russert’s Jesuit record by serving as commencement speaker and honorary alumnus of thirteen Jesuit institutions holds great significance to Martin. He has neither graduated from nor worked at an American Jesuit institution, but as an honorary alumnus of nearly half of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, he now feels a great connection to their students and alumni. Martin said, “Being able to participate in this way and getting these honorary degrees really does make me feel tied to these schools in a wonderful way. When I meet graduates at book signings and parishes, talks and things like that, I’m able to say, ‘Go Eagles! Go Broncos! Go Greyhounds! Go Royals!’ So, I really do feel this connection and it’s been a kind of education for me too.”

Click below to view the full interview of Rev. James Martin’s conversation on Jesuit education:

Jesuit honorary degrees awarded to Rev. James Martin, S.J.: Canisius College (2016), Creighton University (2016), Fairfield University (2015), Gonzaga University (2016), Le Moyne College (2011), Loyola University Maryland (2017), Marquette University (2014), Saint Joseph's University (2012), Saint Louis University (2012), Saint Peter's University (2013), Santa Clara University (2015), University of Scranton (2017), Wheeling Jesuit University (2010)

Jesuit honorary degrees awarded to Tim Russert: Boston College (2004), Canisius College (1993), College of the Holy Cross (2005), Creighton University (2006), Fordham University (2004), Georgetown University (2001), John Carroll University (1997), Loyola University Maryland (1997), Saint Joseph's University (2005), Saint Louis University (1998), Santa Clara University (2005), University of San Francisco (2001), University of Scranton (1997)

Jesuit honorary degrees awarded to Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.: Fairfield University (1975), Fordham University (1967), Georgetown University (1977), Gonzaga University (1965), Le Moyne College (1954), Loyola Marymount University (1982), Loyola University Chicago (1970), Loyola University New Orleans (1989), Regis University (1974), Rockhurst University (1988), Saint Louis University (1969), Saint Peter’s University (2000), Seattle University (1981), University of Scranton (1981), Wheeling Jesuit University (1989)

[Sources: Jesuit colleges and universities; University of Notre Dame]

*After publishing this story on May 16th, we learned that Tim Russert received an honorary degree from Spring Hill College during its 175th anniversary celebration. We thank our former AJCU president and current Spring Hill chancellor Rev. Gregory Lucey, S.J. for this update.