Fr. Francis Martin Was a Humble Man and a Spiritual Giant
Fr. Francis Martin’s holy life was punctuated by an equally holy and peaceful death.
Dec. 23, 2017 marks what would have been the 61st anniversary of Fr. Francis Martin’s priestly ordination. He was a humble man, not in need or want of awards or honors, but deserving of them nonetheless.
For those who were blessed to know him, he made a profound impact. I had the privilege of working very closely with him for three-and-a-half years as his executive director to help him realize his vision in founding The Word Proclaimed Institute (WPI), an organization dedicated to assisting clergy and lay people in the authentic teaching and preaching of Holy Scripture. On Oct. 21, one day after what would have been his 87th birthday, Fr. Francis’ WPI was awarded the Pope Francis Charity and Leadership Award by the Catholic organization, Caritas in Veritate International.
His life’s mission was to open up Scripture so as to know and love Christ more and to help others do the same. He accomplished this while exemplifying the love and mercy of God the Father to the people he encountered. He remained grounded in that Love, responded generously to the needs of others, and managed to do so with a heavy dose of Irish humor and storytelling.
Fr. Francis was born on Oct. 20, 1930 in the Bronx, New York to Arthur Francis and Jane Frances Ryan Martin. His father was an executive of a famous mid-20th-century shoe company, I. Miller & Sons in New York. Arthur’s studies at Columbia University were interrupted by his U.S. Army service during World War I. Jane graduated from a teaching college and taught in a public grammar school in New York. Fr. Francis had two sisters — Joan who was six years older and Ann who was three years younger.
His love of Scripture started around 6 years of age when he lined the neighborhood kids up to teach them Scripture, whether they wanted to or not. His passion for Scripture was sparked even more when his Jewish middle school teacher told him that the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. When he saw the Hebrew text for the first time, he knew that he would study Hebrew so that he could read the Old Testament in the original language. In addition to Hebrew he also became fluent in Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, Latin, French, German and several other languages. At WPI, I witnessed him regularly translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek right on the spot in our weekly sessions creating video commentary on Scripture. I felt very blessed to sit at the feet of this Scripture scholar and spiritual giant and receive firsthand the fruits of his contemplation of Scripture.
Fr. Francis is a great example of how we should study and love Scripture. For him, it was alive and pregnant with meaning, and he spent his whole life digging deeper into that meaning. Scripture spoke to him in new and profound ways, as it can for us. One of his favorite passages was Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” At one point, it impressed upon me when he quoted St. Jerome who lamented that people do not make an effort to receive the Word at Mass with the same reverence that they receive the Eucharist, for Christ is truly present in both. St. Jerome said, “When we approach the [Eucharistic] Mystery, if a crumb falls to the ground we are troubled. Yet when we are listening to the word of God, and God’s Word and Christ’s flesh and blood are being poured into our ears yet we pay no heed, what great peril should we not feel?” Fr. Francis treated God’s Word with the utmost reverence.
I first met Fr. Francis when I had him as a Scripture professor at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., a school of theology and philosophy that trains Dominican priests and brothers as well as others who are interested in theological studies. He restored the Scriptures to me after a terrible experience in a college class with a professor who had mocked the Scriptures. I became distrustful of anyone who claimed to do exegesis. Fr. Francis, on the other hand, showed me the intelligibility of Scripture and how to do critical analysis of Scripture with reverence. In a sense, he showed me how to do “theology on my knees” as Pope Francis exhorted.
Fr. Francis went to high school run by the Christian Brothers at Iona Prep in New Rochelle, New York, from 1944 to 1948. Once, when he was on the debate team, he debated and won both sides of the argument. He then attended the Jesuit university, College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts. He matriculated in the class of 1952 but he left after his sophomore year to go into the monastery. Later on he would receive the ecclesiastical training in Philosophy and Theology at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts and earn two Licentiates (one in Theology from St. Thomas Pontifical University and another in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute). In 1978, he went on to receive a Doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
Prior to entering the monastery though, Fr. Francis studied urban planning and economics to become a Wall Street investment banker, but sensing the incompleteness of urban planning or wealth to satisfy souls, he decided on a life of prayer and became a monk instead.
Fr. Francis first joined the Paulists in 1950 in Rhode Island. One day, Fr. Francis sat in the chapel at the Paulists and he heard his friend Brother Charlie say behind him, “You don’t belong here. You are one of those contemplatives.” The Paulists had a tradition of sending one of their own to go pray for them with the Cistercians and they providentially picked Fr. Francis to go.
He arrived at the Cistercians in January 1951 and received the Sacrament of Holy Orders on Dec. 23, 1956. Fr. Francis’ time with the Cistercians was spiritually fruitful but not without challenges. For example, when he first arrived in the middle of a very cold winter, the Cistercians were living simply in paper-thin barracks in Rhode Island. They were building a new abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Fr. Francis found the new abbey and lifestyle too lavish, preferring a more ascetical existence, but he deferred out of obedience.
When the abbot, seeing Fr. Francis’ interest in Scripture and his linguistic aptitude, selected him to go to the Angelicum in Rome to study theology, he quickly jumped on that opportunity. He arrived in 1959 and was blessed to study in Rome during the Second Vatican Council where he was privileged to get to know several participants and to hear about the content of the Council firsthand. He also got to meet one of his favorite authors, Fr. (later Cardinal) Henri de Lubac, in the course of driving Council dignitaries in Rome.
In 1965, he discerned that he should live at the Madonna House Community in Cumbermere, Ontario. He was incardinated in the Diocese of Pembroke and led retreats for priests and laypeople in the diocese, wrote books, and did speaking engagements on Scripture. Fr. Francis became a national and international leader in the Charismatic Renewal by 1968.
From 1971to 1973 and 1976 to 1978 he taught at the École Biblique in Jerusalem.
Fr. Francis participated in the Charismatic Conference held in Kansas City, Missouri in 1977 and discerned that he should move to the D.C. metro area in 1977 to help with the growing Mother of God Community, a charismatic community. In 1995 the community experienced a painful split and Cardinal James Hickey appointed Fr. Francis as chaplain. Fr. Francis became the only priest to remain to help the community heal.
Fr. Francis taught at the Catholic University of America, Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, and the Dominican House of Studies. He retired from teaching in May 2010 to start WPI.
However, his mission was temporarily thwarted when in August 2010 he suffered a double heart attack in the Copenhagen, Denmark, airport on his way back from a speaking engagement. He remained in a hospital there for six weeks, including 30 days in the ICU, and by the grace of God survived. He later recounted that he had visions of Our Lady in the hospital. His faith and holiness were so evident that he even managed to evangelize members of the hospital staff in one of the most secular countries today. In September 2010, he was airlifted to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital where he underwent a successful quadruple heart bypass operation.
Miraculously, he recovered and was able to accomplish the bulk of the work of WPI: creating video commentary for each Sunday’s readings of the Catholic three-year cycle, doing video commentary on other books of the Bible, writing articles and books, speaking, and hosting conferences for clergy on Scripture. He has appeared on EWTN and various radio programs. Fr. Francis continued to work on scriptural commentary until his hospitalization for double viral pneumonia in December 2016. He again miraculously survived and was discharged to home hospice care where the Lord allowed Fr. Francis to prepare to meet Him. Fr. Francis died on Aug. 11, 2017.
As he lay dying, he received last rites and had a steady stream of brother priests saying prayers. He was surrounded by family and friends. His holy life was punctuated by an equally holy and peaceful death.
“Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” St. Jerome also said. May we follow the example of Fr. Francis and strive to deepen our understanding of Scripture.
Fr. Francis Martin’s commentary on Scripture is available for free in audio and video and can be found at www.thewordproclaimed.org. In this Christmas season and throughout the year, may Fr. Francis’ daily and weekly commentary enrich your understanding of Scripture as it has for so many others around the world.
Arina O. Grossu lives in Washington, D.C.