Thu, Jan 10, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Book review: A priest bares his soul

Finally available in English decades after the Chinese version was published, ‘Journey to Mexico’ is a breezy but thoughtful and personal read about Barry Martinson’s spiritual journey that will challenge your inner cynic

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Journey to Mexico By Barry Martinson

Up until last month, Father Barry Martinson’s Journey to Mexico was an unusual case in that only a Chinese version was available despite the book being written in English. In 1985, Martinson’s close friend and late writer, Sanmao (三毛), was so impressed by the manuscript that she translated and published it as Chanashiguang (剎那時光), which roughly means “a fleeting moment.”

However, the Jesuit priest remained hesitant about publishing it in English because it was “so excruciatingly personal,” he writes in the afterword. “But as the years passed, I cared less about this and just wanted to get the book out while I was alive.”

The original title, On Becoming a Father, probably better encapsulates the book, as it is not just about Martinson’s trips to Mexico and his friendships with Mexican migrant workers in Oregon, but about his spiritual journey from when he first started wanting to be a priest in third grade up until 1982 when he took a sabbatical from his duties at Hsinchu County’s Chingchuan (清泉) and returned to San Diego to study art.

In these pages, Martinson comes off as different than the calm and serene figure that visitors to his church in Chingchuan may encounter. He is insecure and still seeking his way as a Jesuit priest despite having already been serving in Taiwan for six-plus years.

“After once again experiencing the joy of just being a ‘brother,’ the challenge then was to return to Taiwan and carry on my life as a ‘father,’” he writes.

He worries about his shortcomings and has a hard time letting go of his friends and family, and his musings and innermost thoughts are interspersed with the lively and well-paced narrative, making for a breezy yet thought-provoking read. Martinson’s prose is simple yet descriptive, sprinkled with anecdotes, episodes and reactions that make the reader chuckle.

Publication Notes

Journey to Mexico

By Barry Martinson

172 pages

Tau Books

Paperback : Taipei

It’s understandable why he was reluctant to publish it, but there was probably no reason to worry as the average person likely struggles with many more demons, and the average memoir features a greater amount of scandal. Priests are human too, and it’s these kinds of deeply personal revelations that resonate with the reader, regardless if they share the same religion or not.

“But often what is most personal is often most general,” Martinson aptly writes in the introduction.

Yes, Martinson’s observations and interactions with the migrant workers and his art teachers could make interesting articles, but it probably wouldn’t be enough for a book.

Those interested in missionaries in Asia or who live in Taiwan will be drawn to this book, especially those who have rubbed elbows with Martinson. While his other books, Chingchuan Story and Song of Orchid Island, focus on his experiences in those locales, Journey to Mexico really gives us an understanding of Martinson’s motives and how he became the person he is today.


Most people would find it difficult to fathom why someone would voluntarily give up their worldly pleasures for priesthood, considering especially the Catholic Church’s reputation. Although it’s not an easy path, Martinson’s intentions seem driven by a simple desire to help the poor and spread God’s word. From the moment he gave up the money he saved to buy his high school class ring to help destitute children in other countries, his path was set and he wavered but never strayed.

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