James Martin is not your regular priest. Oh sure, you can find him celebrating Mass on various Sundays at the imposing grand altar of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola—founder of the Jesuits—at 84th and Park. But you are far more likely to spot Martin in his role as New York’s preeminent celebrity priest. Paid speaking engagements and sold-out lectures? Check. Book signings and The New York Times bestseller list? Check. Recognized in restaurants and on the street? Yep. Martin is so attuned to his celebrity that once when a female friend tried to hold his hand walking down Broadway, he pushed it away, cautioning her that he must not do such a thing with his collar on. Even when he takes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he posts regular dispatches to his Facebook page—including a report on the inflight movie (Bridesmaids) on his way to the Sea of Galilee. And then there is Colbert, his new BFF, who reached out to him after reading one of his Times opinion pieces on Mother Teresa and elevated Martin to basic-cable stardom.
Martin’s most regular outlet is his position as culture editor of America, which he describes as “the Atlantic” of the Catholic world. There he regularly opines on everything from gays in the priesthood (misunderstood) to the sainthood of Steve Jobs (probably not). When the Penn State scandal broke, he was invited to offer “a priest’s view” for The Washington Post. He also writes, on occasion, for the Times op-ed page. He does at least five interviews a week for outlets such as NPR, CNN, PBS, BBC, and The History Channel.
Of his nine books, two have been bestsellers. Martin estimates that his book sales and speaking engagements combined have brought in more than $500,000, all of which goes to the Jesuits, of course. Which is one reason that, except for his saying shit on the Colbert show, even the Church hierarchy—he is still giddy over a letter from the Superior General of the Jesuits praising his work—is cool with Martin.
As Father Martin will tell you, God works in mysterious ways. Why else would He have sent Jim Martin to the Wharton School of Business first? God, you clever dude! To create a priest with such excellent marketing skills.
Martin’s second book was a memoir he wrote while he was a priest-in-training called In Good Company. Published in 2000, it chronicled his journey from corporate America to the priesthood. Kathleen Norris, another bestselling author about Christianity, wrote of the book that, “The world of the Jesuits, which at first is unfamiliar if not downright mysterious, comes to seem a sane way of living in the world, while what we think of as the ‘normal’ world of corporate America is revealed as very strange indeed.”
Yes, 30 years ago, Martin was a fast-track executive at General Electric, in the hard-driving heyday of Winning author Jack Welch. Every morning his alarm would wake him at 7 a.m. “on-the-dot” so he could brush his teeth, comb his hair (back then he had hair), put on his Brooks Brothers uniform (he had a set of pin-stripes and a set of solids) and walk from his Upper East Side apartment to his glossy midtown office to arrive at 9 a.m. “on-the-dot.”
He didn’t love the work. He found he was neither interested in nor passionate about number-crunching and spreadsheet-assembling. But he enjoyed his colleagues and liked having a large sum of money to throw away on beers at P.J. Clarke’s and bottle service at The Pyramid Club, where one memorable night the “performance” consisted of a woman throwing raw chicken parts at the audience. More important, he was doing exactly what he was expected to do. Martin’s parents, a marketer for a pharmaceutical company and a substitute French teacher, had been “delighted” that he went to Wharton, says Martin. “It meant that I would have a secure financial future.”
Even as an undergrad, though, Martin showed signs of being interested in things other than money. He’d quiz his friends in the College about their liberal-arts classes, especially art and art history. He had 4 a.m. conversations about the existence of God and the meaning of life. He lived in an off-campus house on Spruce Street with 15 other students, which had its own theme song—Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita”—and put together lavish theme parties (Black & White, Art Deco, the Last Dance, and so on) that required a significant amount of creativity. (They also took time for the occasional staged photo—see opposite page.)
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Martin recalls of himself then. “Wharton, as the best undergraduate business school, seemed appealing. I thought I could at least do something with that, get into the business end. I used to say that all the time ‘the business end’ of writing, or the ‘business end’ of art. I used to enjoy painting and art—so I thought perhaps museum management. But I only had the vaguest idea of what I wanted to do.”
An important step on his road to the priesthood occurred during his time at Penn, after his friend Brad Almeda C’81 was killed in a car accident the summer after their junior year. Almeda, a communications student and wrestler whom one classmate calls “the Adonis,” had been Martin’s freshman year roommate in the Quad. Nubile coeds would find excuses to walk by their room, just to catch a glimpse of him—but what they usually got instead was a joke or two from Jim Martin. Martin was devastated by Almeda’s death. Back on campus a group of students, angry and confused, gathered to talk about how God could possibly do this. Martin was among the angriest. A quiet, devout girl named Jacque Braman W’82 (now Jacque Braman Follmer) offered a comment: “I just thank God for the time we had with him.” That moment changed the way Martin viewed religion. From that moment on he wanted God to be his buddy, not someone he feared.
It was this James Martin who became increasingly frustrated at General Electric. “It is one thing to want to change jobs,” he says. “But it’s another thing to feel like you are in a completely wrong place.” While his colleagues worked long hours trying to prove themselves and get promoted, Martin lacked the competitive drive to do well in this field. At GE he found a strict boss who made him do things he was not comfortable with—like tweak numbers in official records. In Good Company chronicles that corruption as well, which would, years later, lead to a Securities Exchange Commission investigation and a $50 million settlement. Ultimately, he switched to a human-resources job with the company in Connecticut, hoping it wouldn’t be as cutthroat. But Connecticut was cutthroat, too. Ultimately, six years of General Electric gave Martin anxiety-related stomach problems, so he decided to see a therapist (If GE is paying for it, why not, he reasoned). The therapist asked him, if he could do anything in the world, what would it be? “That’s easy,” Martin answered. “I would be a Jesuit priest.”
| ©2012 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 02/23/12