Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

James Martin: From Wharton to Rome

"My Penn friends were horrified."

Penn's Wharton undergraduate business school isn't the typical staging ground for a career in the ministry. But for James Martin (''82), the road to Rome led through West Philadelphia.

A Jesuit priest, Martin is a rare mass-media intellectual in today's battered American Catholic church. He's a member of Philip Seymour Hoffman's LAByrith Theater Company at New York's Public Theater, and an occasional "chaplain" on Steve Colbert's popular TV show ("Colbert is very Catholic"). He's wrestled with angry liberal Catholic polymath Gary Wills in the secular-humanist New York Review of Books, preaches weekly to elite New Yorkers at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Fifth Ave., served as an editor of the Jesuit magazine America, and written best-sellers (A Jesuit Off-Broadway; My Life with the Saints).

Last night, Martin walked a jammed Huntsman lecture hall up his career path. He grew up in an "irreligious Catholic family" in Norristown and Plymouth Meeting, hit the books as a typical Wharton "grind," stayed in bed Sundays at Speakman Hall and High Rise North dorms avoiding Penn's "touchy-feely" campus-ministry Masses, and graduated to an accounting job at General Electric headquarters in Connecticut.

"Business is a vocation for some people. It wasn't for me. Everyone around me liked what they were doing. I was miserable. I was starting to get these stomach cramps."

Six years on, Martin saw a TV documentary about Thomas Merton, the mid-20th-Century Ivy League convert and Trappist writer. "He seemed so happy." Wharton-style, he went right to sources: books by Merton, C.S. Lewis and other mid-20th-Century Christian intellectuals. He consulted a psychologist, introduced himself to the local pastor, presented himself at the Jesuit community in nearby Fairfield, Conn, blew through the clerical bureaucracy ("It was like setting up an interview at Salomon Bros."), and shocked his old suitemates at a dinner at Brasserie in New York to break the news. "My Penn friends were horrified. I'd never talked about religion to them. At all."

The Jesuits sent him to Kenya, where "I thought I'd left all my Wharton stuff behind." But his Nairobi superiors assigned him "to help refugees start small businesses." Results: "Two Ethiopian restaurants, both called Blue Nile." Chicken and cattle farms, "which they don't teach you at Penn."A women's group making stuffed animals for exports. More women tailoring specialized clothing for "wealthy expats and tourists and foreign religious. They had the money. We had the people." He helped connect both sides. "That's the Wharton training."

Martin talked most about why religious people ought to be funny. He told death jokes and Wharton jokes and Jesus jokes. He said he'd found joy and God in unexpected people and places, but warned against the religious life as a bypass to easy happiness: "Once you get it, it's hard. That's the Cross. That's the Christian way." He laughed. His audience laughed, a lot. He sold some books.