In 1988 James Martin W’82 jumped off the corporate fast track at General Electric to become a Jesuit priest. That meant two decades of study and service; taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; and praying a lot—oh, and also living rent-free in midtown Manhattan (in the same building where he works!), writing bestselling books, and palling around with Stephen Colbert.
BY ALYSON KRUEGER
With a full heart and a steady focus, Rev. James Martin, SJ, kneels beside the twin bed—immaculately made, with crisp white sheets—in his room at the Jesuit house, clasps his nervous hands, and prays: Please God, don’t let me screw up tonight on The Colbert Report. Okay, those weren’t his exact words. His exact words were a quote from the psalms: “Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
Martin has given up sex, material goods, and a very considerable amount of independence to become one of God’s spokesmen on Earth, but he still doubts whether the big man will listen to his pleas alone. So he turns to Facebook. “If you have a second,” he asks his then-2,651 friends, “pray that I don’t accidentally say anything (a) dumb, (b) offensive, (c) inarticulate, (d) inaccurate, or (e) heterodox tonight.”
He should have added: Prevent me from committing the unforgiveable sin of being funnier than Stephen Colbert. This is his sixth appearance on the show (his official title is The Chaplain of the Colbert Nation), and in the past he’s come close. Last time, he said shit on national television. (Colbert and his audience was amused; a few of his Jesuit superiors less so, even though it was bleeped.) On another night, he told Colbert he would make him a saint (who knew it was so easy?). And after winning an argument about whether Mother Teresa is in hell—um, not!—he shrugged and pointed out, “Well you did ask a Jesuit on the show.”
This time Martin is appearing to promote his ninth book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. (He considered titling it, “Jesus, That’s Funny,” but that didn’t go over well at base camp.) There is little he can do to prepare for Colbert. He doesn’t need to go over the material: “If I don’t know it after 22 years, I’m in trouble,” he says. He doesn’t need to choose his outfit. Jesuit priests have a uniform: black suit, white clerical collar. He doesn’t even need to comb his hair. At 50, he’s mostly bald.
Still, when I meet Martin at the Jesuit house at 106 W. 56th Street—a nine-story building that also contains the offices of America, the national Catholic weekly magazine, where Martin is culture editor—to escort him to the show, he is nervous. I am five minutes early, but he is at the door waiting for me. “You dressed up for the show,” he says approvingly. “We look sort of similar.” We do. Priest garb, little black dress, same thing.
Staying true to his Jesuit vow of poverty, Martin declines the town car and driver Colbert provides for his guests, so we trudge the mile or so to the Colbert studio on 11th Avenue, where a line of ticket-holders is wrapped around the dreary corner. When we get into the lobby, Martin is no longer paying attention to me. A Colbert intern greets him excitedly, “Hello Father!” And the receptionist welcomes him as an old friend. “Your mother and sister are here,” she says, ushering him into the downstairs green room reserved for the featured guest. “Your sister baked.”
That is an understatement. Martin’s younger sister Carolyn, a Harvard grad and career consultant, made at least four tins of chocolate cupcakes, cookies with some type of marshmallow center, and sugar cookies for the production staff. “Is she trying to sweeten up Colbert, so he won’t be harsh on you?” I ask. After all, Colbert has a team of hysterical writers on his side, and well, you have no one, I suggest. That is not true, Martin informs me, breaking into a huge, boyish grin. “I have Jesus.”
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Photography by Chris Crisman C’03