Ministering in the Media Spotlight
Father Jonathan Morris discusses his priestly calling, his bestselling books and his unanticipated role as a high-profile Catholic analyst on Fox News.
It is an irony that someone not seeking the limelight should find himself there.
Working in the media was never a goal for Father Jonathan Morris, yet, for the last 10 years, he has achieved high acclaim in the field.
He is a three-time New York Times bestselling author — including the recently released The Way of Serenity: Finding Peace and Happiness in the Serenity Prayer — and since 2005, he has given news analysis through a Catholic lens several times a week for the Fox News Channel.
Father Morris is also a parish priest in the Archdiocese of New York, a special assistant to Cardinal Timothy Dolan for media and communications and a director of The Catholic Channel on SiriusXM satellite radio.
He has degrees in business, classical humanities, philosophy and theology; and in 2004, he graduated magna cum laude with a licentiate graduate degree in moral theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. Then, through no plan of his own, he ended up front and center in the media.
When did you feel called to the priesthood?
I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., the third oldest of seven children, but did not feel called to be a priest during my childhood. I majored in business at Franciscan University in Steubenville and had a girlfriend.
My roommate was thinking of the priesthood, and I was impressed. It is such a big commitment. I invited him to a retreat to think about it. At the retreat, I started thinking about it myself. In the end, I became a priest, and my roommate married my girlfriend — although he asked my permission before he started dating her.
How did you discern that you really had a vocation?
It was like falling in love as I grew closer to God. Charity, chastity and poverty are not fun things, but I still felt drawn to do it. The desire to do such hard things is not natural; it’s supernatural. I was going to dive into it until I felt like I should not be there anymore. That feeling never came. All along, I felt God calling me to take the next step.
Why did you leave the Legion of Christ order to become a diocesan priest?
I was ordained a priest in the Legion of Christ in Rome in 2002. The founder of the order, a man who for years taught me to believe in Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, was secretly entangled in a web of deceit. I feel grief every time I tell the story, but it reminds me that my faith is in God and not institutions.
I took a leave of absence from the Legion of Christ and then accepted an invitation from Cardinal Dolan to serve as a parish priest in the Archdiocese of New York. I was the parochial vicar of the historic St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral from 2009 until last year and serve now at Corpus Christi in Manhattan, along with all my other duties.
What is it like walking around New York City in your Roman collar?
Sometimes, people come up to me and say something about the priest scandals. I don’t get defensive. I find that is counterproductive, so I start with the truth. I acknowledge that the acts and the cover-up were despicable. People often express surprise that I said that. Then their questions become very rational, like, “What has the Church done about it?” At that point, I will tell them about the Dallas Charter and that very hard policy decisions have been made that affect the life of every priest.
Most of the time, though, wearing a Roman collar is a joy that leads to opportunities to hear confessions or minister to people.
How did you end up in the media?
Through a mutual friend, I became friends with Jim Caviezel and was invited to visit the set for Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. There was some controversy over parts of it, so I ended up being asked to be a theological adviser. After the film was released, [CNN’s] Larry King invited me on his talk show three different times. During the sickness and death of Pope John Paul II, Fox wanted someone to report on it, and they knew about me through Larry King. I was asked to stay through the conclave and election of Pope Benedict XVI, and they just kept me on afterwards. I’m on around three times a week, including every Sunday morning.
How do you select issues to analyze?
I report on a variety of news stories that affect our culture beyond just Church news. My analysis is not just [from] a Catholic perspective, but a moral and ethical perspective, which is the basis for all Catholic teaching. I help people understand the news by showing there is another side to the story.
I understand that while talking about Church teaching on homosexuality, you once mentioned that you have a sister who is same-sex attracted.
Yes, I also talk about it in my second book. I explained that homosexuality is not a sin, but homosexual acts are a sin. My sister is a lesbian and was civilly married, which was very tough for my family.
When it comes to issues such as same-sex attraction, Pope Francis has influenced me greatly. He taught me to explain Church teaching not just in a loving way, but also in a way that the person can experience the love [of the Church].
Practically speaking, that can mean finding common ground — what do we share in common? I want that person to know that I love them no matter what. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever speak out, but I don’t begin with that. In a true friendship, the other person should trust you to say what you believe.
The offices at Sirius Catholic Channel are just down the hall from a channel dedicated to gay and lesbian issues. I can walk by them and be polite or I can befriend them. I’m walking around in a Roman collar, so that says a lot. I try to show them that it’s not the case that we cannot have a relationship besides me telling them they are wrong.
Tell me about your three books, which have all made The New York Times Best Seller’s List: God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help; The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts; and The Way of Serenity: Finding Peace and Happiness in the Serenity Prayer.
Writing and delivering news analysis from a Catholic perspective only scratches the surface of authentic Christian living, but I’m limited to the topic of the day. I might explain what the Catholic Church say about a news item, but I’m not talking about the divinity of Jesus all the time. The books are a way to tell the rest of the story about what I most care about: salvation and eternal life and God’s plan for us today.
What is the best and the worst part of being in the media?
The platform I have is both an opportunity and a responsibility. I am not interested in the celebrity — that is more of a cross. I am more than willing to stop doing all the media if my bishop wants or would be fine getting sent to the smallest parish in the archdiocese.
I am still a parish priest and spend a good portion of my day trying to serve people in my parish or at the hospital who have no contact at all with any of the media things I do. I’m not a media priest; I am a priest. I have that very close to my heart.
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.