Later that night, after his fans in Rye have bombarded him for autographs, Jim Martin returns to his room at the Jesuit house with its modest twin bed and a crucifix hanging on the wall. Can you get a bigger bed? I ask. “Yes” he replies, “but it would just remind you more of chastity.”
Downstairs, in the sprawling kitchen, two full-time chefs make two meals a day and there is a pantry full of Raisin Bran, peanut butter, and coffee. Brother Frank Turnbull, one of Martin’s housemates, who has been a Jesuit for 50 years, says about their lifestyle, “You can’t beat it.”
The Jesuits even provide his living companions: 19 (much) older priests who are very accomplished—there are writers, architects, and former college presidents in the mix—but go to bed at 9 o’clock (“You’re not living so much with your brothers, but your fathers,” Martin cracks). When they aren’t in bed, they hang out in the sixth-floor sitting room, which sort of looks like a nursing home with bare walls and old padded armchairs. But there is an open bar! It is customary, between Mass and dinner, to repair to the sitting room for a couple of drinks.
There are some rules. When Martin needs to make any big purchases, he must go to the powers that be for approval. On one day recently he is particularly excited because he just got the OK to buy a new suit and when he went to Jos. A. Banks there was a buy-one, get-two-free deal. One of his old Penn friends, determined not to send him another crucifix for his ordination, sent him a gift certificate to Banana Republic. He was delighted to be able to buy pants without permission.
But in fact, the Jesuits provide almost every worldly good he could possibly need, and will for eternity—from his food to his socks to his toothpaste to his final resting place (he’ll be with his bros at the Jesuit cemetery in Weston, Massachusetts, at the same place he made his first retreat). Not to mention the sweet piece of real estate in midtown Manhattan that he calls home, and that is the envy of many of his friends who actually have to pay their own mortgages. It sort of takes the edge off the vow of poverty.
His Wharton classmate Weber points out that while many of their mutual friends lost money and opportunities in the economic crash, Martin was safeguarded. Both from money problems and the emotional toll. “It’s actually very freeing,” says Martin. “I don’t really think about money too much because I don’t really see it.”
And he couldn’t have an easier commute. On the second floor of the house is the headquarters of America, where Martin pens his columns. One controversial issue where there seems to be a fair amount of daylight between his views and the hierarchy’s position is homosexuality and the church. “Officially at least, the gay Catholic seems set up to a lead a lonely, loveless, secretive life,” Martin wrote on the magazine’s website (www.americamagazine.org). “Is this what God desires for the gay person?” After the Vatican issued a document banning gays from the priesthood, Martin clarified the implications in a comment to a New York Times reporter: “It’s a clear statement by the Vatican that gay men are not welcome in seminaries and religious orders.” Asked how he would respond to gay marriage if he were Pope (the current hierarchy, Martin says, will “not change its teaching one bit”) his response was, “No comment.”
Another subject he doesn’t shy away from is the Church’s sex-abuse scandal. The problem, says Martin, is not that the priesthood attracts weirdos. He points out that a lot of abuse takes place in schools and families. (“You would never say, what is it about marriage that attracts perverts, right?” he says.) But he feels strongly that the Church did not act fast enough to get rid of “these guys.” And it was not transparent. “A lot of decisions were made behind closed doors, and transparency and openness about finances and the operation of the Church is really essential.”
No one who reads Martin’s writing would be unsure of his views. “Any intelligent person would probably understand his deep feelings,” says Susan Melle, a former colleague at GE and practicing Catholic, but he still has to toe a careful line. A select few of his superiors (they are called censors, which is where the word comes from) approve everything he writes before it is published, especially his books, which are marked with the Latin phrase, imprimi potest, which means, “It can be printed.” Accepting this scrutiny, something he does as part of the vow of obedience, is one of the hardest parts of being a Jesuit, he says.
“You are such a big brand,” I tell Martin, a few days before the Colbert show. “You have all these books, you can do whatever you want.”
“Thanks to the Society of Jesus,” he interrupts. “I wasn’t doing this before I was in the Society of Jesus.”
“But you could have been.” Wharton-educated, naturally talented writer and speaker, Hel-LO!
“No I couldn’t have been. All the experiences I write about, all the stuff about prayer and spirituality and the saints and humor; I learned all that in the Society of Jesus. They made me who I am.”
Still, why doesn’t he just go off on his own now, become a big star, keep his profits, write without scrutiny, and have lots and lots of sex, which he admits he misses.
He pauses. Then:
“What would I be writing about—GE?” he finally says exasperatedly. “The only reason I wanted to communicate something is because I had something to communicate.”
Something he could never have communicated, apparently, without 21 years of Jesuit training.
Martin does not see his media appearances, book tours, or books and columns as any form of self-promotion. “It’s not about me,” he says. “It’s all to bring people to the books, which bring people to God.” It is the Catholic Church and the Jesuits that awoke his passions and enabled him to use his talents, he says. It’s “all in service of the greater glory of God,” he says, quoting the Jesuit motto.
And he thinks it’s good material. “For Pete’s sake, Christ has risen, after all!” and “You can’t make the Gospel unexciting, I mean you really have to try … It’s revolutionary. It’s radical.”
“Five, four, three, two … ”
The Colbert Report stage manager is ushering Martin in for his sixth appearance on the show, to promote his book about humor in the spiritual life. As he waits on stage, he waves to the crowd, shoots a wide grin, and then makes the Sign of the Cross. The crowd bursts out laughing, but for the Jesuit priest, this is no joke.
The morning after, Father Martin kneels beside his bed, and says his morning prayers. When he finishes the day’s Scripture readings, he closes his prayer book, and does what any good author would do after a “Colbert bump.”
He makes the sign of the cross, turns on his computer, and checks his Amazon ratings.
Alyson Krueger C’07 is a journalist living in New York.
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