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Controversial priest: Homophobia in church ‘always going to be there’

Father James Martin speaks at Holy Name Cathedral on Friday. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

He has cultivated a reputation as a Roman Catholic rock star.

And a line of 1,200 people stretching from the Holy Name Cathedral entrance around the block to Chicago Avenue to hear the Rev. James Martin speak — on a Friday night, no less — helped prove it.

“The number of people that come show the attraction not to me, but to Jesus,” the Jesuit priest said after his hourlong talk before packed pews.

Part of Martin’s draw is certainly tied to his progressive attitude toward welcoming gay and lesbian Catholics into the church.

It’s what also drew more than 100 protesters across the street during Martin’s first Chicago talk on Thursday — though the barricaded sidewalk was conspicuously absent of demonstrators on Friday.

“I think it’s always going to be there. There’s always going to be an element of homophobia and hatred in the church,” he said. “But those protesters really don’t bother me too much.”

The pews were packed Friday when Rev. James Martin spoke at Holy Name Cathedral, though his message of welcoming gay and lesbians into the Church also has drawn protests from more conservative Catholics. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Martin, an editor at large for America magazine who has penned a dozen other books, made waves across the Catholic world last summer with his book “Building a Bridge,” which argues that Church leaders should reach out to LGBT people with “greater compassion and openness.”

The book was published with the blessing of Jesuit leaders and endorsed by several cardinals, but it prompted a severe backlash from conservative Catholics who decried it as a promotion of “intrinsic evil,” as the Detroit-based Church Militant group termed it.

“Ninety-nine percent of the Catholic faithful are open to the message of welcoming LGBT people,” Martin said Friday. “Certainly LGBT Catholics are happy that the conversation has gotten started.”

The controversy — stirred by what Martin has referred to as the “Catholic alt-right” — prompted several organizations to pull the plug on scheduled talks by the priest last year.

But Cardinal Blase Cupich extended an invitation in September for Martin to speak at Holy Name during Lent, with the cardinal saying he “wanted to let him know that I supported him.”

In an updated paperback edition released earlier this month, Martin wrote that the reaction to the book showed him “how the mere idea of welcoming LGBT people gave rise to the most homophobic and hateful comments you can imagine.

“Of course I expected some criticism of the book, and I invited the discussion in the first edition, but the intensity of the hate took me by surprise,” Martin wrote.

His talk on Friday focused instead on Jesus’ final words in the Gospel, and Martin opened by noting that he studied in the early 1990s at “a little school called Loyola Chicago.

“That’s kind of an easy applause line, isn’t it?” he quipped.

“In the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits: Go Ramblers,” he said to cheers. “Obviously, it was in Latin originally.”

Dozens lined up after his talk to have copies of his book signed.

His advice to the Loyola men’s basketball team as it heads into their Elite Eight matchup on Saturday against Kansas State?

“Listen to Sister Jean,” Martin said.