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For Jesuit journal, a blessed boost

WATERTOWN — The editor in chief of the Jesuit magazine America knew the 12,000-word interview with Pope Francis his journal published last month would be a huge event. But he was still awed by the response: In three days, the journal added 900 subscribers, and the number of unique visitors to its website shot up from 5,000 per day to 200,000 in each of the two days following its publication.

“It is enough,” the Rev. Matt Malone said with a laugh, “to make you believe in trickle-down economics.”

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The 41-year-old Malone, who was in town last week for a Jesuit event for young adults, grew up in Mashpee and worked in politics in Massachusetts before entering religious life.

For the magazine, the Francis interview published on Sept. 19 was historic: It was the first time, as Malone wrote in a note accompanying the text, the magazine was primarily responsible for conveying the words of the pope to an American audience.

The interview, conducted by the editor of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica on behalf of a group of Jesuit publications, including America, electrified the Catholic world last month; in it Francis said the church had grown obsessed with abortion, homosexuality, and contraception, and that instead it should emphasize mercy and compassion.

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In the extraordinary exchange, Francis also talked about his favorite books and movies and about his mistakes as an inexperienced, 36-year-old leader of Argentine Jesuits.

Malone said he was struck by the pope’s intimate, fraternal tone, ideal for “an age that really values authenticity.”

What most distinguishes Francis from his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is that he is more comfortable in the gray of a complex world, Malone said.

“That’s probably a good thing, because the world we live in is really quite messy,” he said.

The interview was saturated in Jesuit spirituality, and Malone said the pope’s distinctive Jesuit identity had already marked his papacy in two ways. Jesuits are meant to be “contemplatives in the world,” eschewing monasteries to live among the people, he said, and Francis “says repeatedly we need to meet people where they are, in their own situation.”

Jesuits also cultivate a strong personal relationship with Jesus — and Francis reminds Catholics, Malone said, that at the heart of their faith is a person.

That means Catholics need to be interested in “the person in front of us, who is never a construct and never a statistic and never an idea, but a person who is also created and redeemed,” Malone said.

“Our entire approach should be informed by that,” he said. “That is what the pope is doing — he is reordering our pastoral priorities for the 21st century along the lines of respect for the truth of the human person.”

Malone’s first love was politics. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he served as an aide to 1994 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Roosevelt and then as a speechwriter for then US Representative Martin T. Meehan before becoming deputy director of MassINC, a nonpartisan independent think tank, and copublisher of its magazine, CommonWealth.

He encountered the Society of Jesus while living in the South End, across the street from the Jesuit Urban Center on Harrison Street, which has since closed.

The Jesuits he met there, he said, “had what I wanted — a certain freedom, a consolation that comes from knowing even in bad times, you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing in life.”

Entering the society was not so much about leaving politics, he said, as it was about embracing the idea that “real, radical change happens in the world through the conversion of hearts.”

During his decade-long preparation for ordination, he earned a master’s degree in philosophy and a graduate degree in theology; he also spent a couple of years covering foreign policy and domestic politics for America.

Still, he was a bit daunted when his superiors asked him to take the top job at America, not long after his ordination. He became the publication’s youngest editor in chief on Oct. 1, 2012.

In addition to the challenges all print publications face these days — attracting younger audiences, developing content across multiple media platforms — the newly minted priest was being asked to take a fresh editorial direction.

“The younger generation of Catholics kind of defies these categories of liberal, conservative, orthodox, progressive that we’ve used since the Second Vatican Council,” he said. “And so what we’ve tried to do in America is tell stories that transcend these categories.”

He knew he would be in the hot seat at one of the country’s most high-profile Catholic publications. As many as half of his predecessors had been dismissed for their editorial positions, he said.

But Malone said he concluded he had, in a sense, nothing to lose — if he got fired, he would still be a priest, and God would still be with him every day.

How will Pope Francis change American Catholic culture? Malone said Catholics from across the ecclesial and political spectrum are already responding to the pope’s call to reexamine their priorities as people of faith.

“If the so-called left feels only affirmed by what the pope has said, and not challenged by it, then they’ve missed his point,” he said. “And if the so-called right feels only threatened by it, then they’ve missed his point.

“The collapsing of ideologies we’ve cherished and clung to in order to find our way in a scary world that’s a hard process to undergo, but it’s a necessary one,” he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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