Jesuit priest moves between Mass, mass media

Manhattan, USA - James Martin is loath to let a big headline go by without spinning the story toward The Big Story — God. He is, after all, a Catholic priest and a Jesuit, a religious order with a fundamental mission of "helping souls."

In ancient days the church told Gospel stories with pictures in stained-glass windows. Now it's the Web and TV. Says Martin, 49: "Everyone needs a medium. Mine is popular culture."

So he'll take on Lindsay Lohan, who dressed as Jesus for the cover of fashion magazine Purple, with a 10-point comparison between the actress and Christ. Martin's blog post for the century-old Jesuit weekly magazine America, where he is culture editor, kindly concludes that perhaps she'll take a lesson from the Savior.

When Mother Teresa's letters, published in 2007, revealed she felt "the absence of God" for decades, Martin told Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert that doubt itself is a statement of belief.

Martin has been back on twice, and the Catholic comic now introduces Martin as the show's chaplain. "Jim is a Jesuit priest and a funny guy. I'm grateful to know both of him," Colbert says.

Martin's new book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: The Spirituality of Real Life, may prompt another on-air moment.

Perhaps Martin is a natural for TV: He discovered his calling while watching a documentary on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

An unlikely career start

At the time, Martin, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School of Business, was a corporate finance executive with a closet full of spectacular suits, a fast-track salary, horrendous hours and stomach-churning pressure.

Faith did not sustain him then. He grew up in suburban Philadelphia in a not particularly observant Catholic home and notes he was well into adulthood before he realized praying was not like popping change in "a cosmic gumball machine."

"Merton was a revelation. I thought monastic life looked so beautiful. It was like falling in love. I ran out and got all of Merton's books and asked my parish priest, who certainly didn't know me, where I could go to become like Merton, a holy person. He mentioned the Jesuits.

"I had no idea who they were, but I went and got brochures on my lunch hour. I looked at them and I thought, 'This is crazy — like joining the circus,' and I ripped them up."

A life that centers on God

Too late. The desire inside him, "a longing for a connection with God and for a way to make that connection real in the world," he says, was inescapable.

Martin practically crashed the doors to enter the order's 1988 training class. It took two decades of prayer, study, service and discernment before he took his final vows last November.

St. Ignatius Loyola, a soldier turned priest, founded the Society of Jesus in the 16th century. The religious order is known for its intellectual rigor, for its workaday-world commitments. Now Ignatian spirituality informs all of Martin's books, even the one on how he spent a year helping an off-Broadway troupe produce a play on Judas.

On weekends, Martin celebrates Mass at the spectacular marble, mosaic and bronze-decorated Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue in Manhattan. This is where he gave his first homily as a priest and took his final vows. But his daily life is around the corner at America, where he's worked for 10 years, writing and editing.

His home office is a two-room suite in the Jesuit residence on the top floors of America's Midtown Manhattan offices, full of art and photos of his stint in Kenya with the Jesuit Refugee Service. It's also near major TV networks.

"Ignatian spirituality is intended for the widest possible audience of believers and seekers," Martin says.

He writes in The Jesuit Guide that "within the Christian tradition, all spiritualities, no matter what their origins, have the same focus — the desire for union with God, an emphasis on love and charity, and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God."

It's about making a God-centered life accessible to the doubtful as well as the devout, he says.

It's about realizing that when you are most vulnerable — sick, out of work, lonely, afraid, "God can move through your defenses, strengthen and accompany you."

And there's a radical simplicity to that, Martin says.

He says Ignatian spirituality "does not ask you to become a half-naked, twig-eating, cave-dwelling hermit. It simply invites you to live simply."

The book becomes like a read-along spiritual director, someone to prompt you with questions, redirect your gaze, and help you, Martin says, to "discern where God might be speaking to you."