|This announcement apparently came out of nowhere. Martin had never even hinted to those who knew him that anything was awry at GE, let alone that he fancied being a priest. And the reaction from his friends and family was anything but supportive, he recalls. When he told Chris Brown, one of his best friends at GE, that he was thinking of going into the priesthood, Brown replied, “You need to see a therapist.” When Martin said he already had one, his friend said, “Then you need to see another one.”
His parents, after he made a pilgrimage home to the Philadelphia suburb of Plymouth Meeting to tell them his intentions, basically said, “Are you nuts? What about all that Wharton education? Are you just going to waste it?” And it was more than that. Catholics are notorious, Martin notes, for worshipping priests—until their son decides to become one.
To hear Martin tell it, his big epiphany had come one night in 1986 when, exhausted from his day at GE, he was sitting on his sofa channel surfing. He happened to catch a PBS documentary on Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk, who lived in a monastery in (yes) Trappist, Kentucky, and spent much of his days and nights writing about spirituality and peace—two things that had eluded Jim Martin at GE. “Everything about that documentary seemed to offer me ‘another way,’” Martin explains.
Most important, Merton liked his life: “The look, at least in the photographs, showed a kind of happiness and contentment that was unknown to me.” Martin became convinced that this was God calling him to the priesthood.
It would have made total sense that if God was calling Jim Martin to the fold, he also knew what brand of priest he would be. Of course he’d be a Jesuit! The intellectual division. But in fact, finding the Jesuits (officially, the Society of Jesus) was a fluke. “I literally, literally did more research on what car to buy,” he insists.
Having moved to Connecticut when he took the HR job, Martin approached his local priest, Fr. Bill Donovan at the Church of St. Leo’s in Stamford, and confessed his desire to join the priesthood. Donovan advised him to check out the Jesuits, who lived and worked at Fairfield University “down the road.” After meeting with the Jesuit recruitment committee, reading four books (including one “sort of nutty book which tells all these tales about Jesuit intrigue”), and going on an eight-day retreat at the Campion Renewal Center in Weston, Massachusetts, he was sold.
Sold on the following: By signing up to be a Jesuit, Martin would have to commit to 11 years—11 years!—of study before he could be ordained as a priest and another 10 before final vows. And he thought Wharton was tough. There were two years of philosophy studies at Loyola University Chicago, and two theology degrees from Boston College. And service. Years and years and years of service. In East Africa, he helped refugees start small businesses and co-founded a handicraft shop, while staving off a two-month bout of mono, and feeling lonely, deserted, and scared for his life (the subject of his first book, This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa, originally published in 1999 and reissued last year.) In Kingston, Jamaica, he comforted dying men at a hospice, bathing and shaving them in their last days. In Boston, he worked at a homeless shelter and as a chaplain in a prison.
Through his training he lived in austere conditions. A Penn friend, Ellen Edelman Weber W’82, remembers that Martin passed up a Bruce Springsteen concert because he couldn’t afford to travel to the venue, let alone buy a ticket. “In the early days the poverty vow was very evident,” she says. “If we wanted him to do something with us … he couldn’t pay.” With a monthly allowance—or personalia, as the Jesuits call it—of $35 a month, he could barely afford a night out for a beer. (Today, his allowance is $300 a month.)
And there was excruciating introspection. During one early session with the Jesuit in charge of recruiting, the priest asked him question after question about his sexual preferences, fantasies, and even masturbation before saying, “Do you mind if I ask you a few personal questions?” Another time, about 15 years ago, he fell deeply in love with someone. It was a “pretty stormy time,” Martin admits, which required a deep evaluation. Did he really want to do this?
At every stage, despite the challenges, Martin answered yes. “I really was so happy,” he says of his priest-in-training years. “It was just amazing to go from a place where I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ to be in a place where I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m here!’”
On November 1, 2009, in front of his close family, friends, and God, Father James Martin took his final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as a “fully professed” Jesuit. Before the ceremony he had a mix of emotions, “probably the same way a groom does.” Hmm. “Did you get a bachelor party at least?” I ask.
“Uh, definitely not.”
There are no lights on in all of Briarcliff Manor, New York—or at least it seems that way, in this sedate village near Rye, 25 minutes from the city, the kind of pristine suburb where some of Jim Martin’s old pals from GE built their dream homes before the recession hit. It’s so quiet and subdued, you can’t help but wonder if they’re all in foreclosure.
Then you see, up on a hill, the sparkling castle that is the Parish Church of St. Theresa, the patron saint of headache sufferers. And then there is light! Vivid colors beam from the stained-glass windows. The crowd is so large it takes three parking lots to accommodate all the cars; inside, it’s standing room only.
And there is laughter, already emanating from St. Theresa’s. Not polite chuckles meant kindly for your religious leader, but knee-slapping, tear-inducing laughter. Jim Martin is here, to speak about finding humor and joy in the Catholic Church. Who knew?
Father Martin, who arrived fashionably late, is telling a joke: A journalist visited Blessed Pope John XXIII and asked, “Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?” John replied, “About half of them.”
The crowd roars. Without missing a beat Martin adds, “Oh and by the way, if you haven’t picked up my new book yet, they are for sale in the back.”
| ©2012 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 02/23/12