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From ruthless corporate life to peace as a Jesuit


In the smelly bathroom of a hospice in Kingston, Jamaica, a man in his late 20s is bathing, shaving and clipping the toenails of dying old men. “Boy, if your friends from Wharton could see you now,” says a friend who has just arrived from the United States.

With that anecdote, Jesuit Fr. James Martin begins his latest book, In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience (Sheed & Ward, 2000). He tells of a journey from a Philadelphia childhood in which Catholicism was of only marginal importance, through a finance degree at the elite Wharton School of Business and six years climbing the ladder at General Electric Co. Up to that point it didn’t seem likely to anyone, especially Martin, that he would respond to a call to the priesthood. But, as he has come to realize, nothing is impossible with God.

Martin was at GE during CEO Jack Welch’s relentless two-decade campaign to reshape GE, pushing managers to become more and more productive and firing some 100,000 employees as he turned GE from a $13 billion to a $500 billion company. Welch’s highly publicized memoir, Jack: Straight from the Gut, was recently published to great fanfare.

What readers won’t find in Welch’s book is an account from the other side -- what Martin saw as a dehumanizing environment at GE. Among experiences he describes in his book are his duties in the income margin department in New York City. “The first month, I informed one executive that our results were coming in low, we probably weren’t going to ‘make our numbers,’ a cardinal sin,” he wrote. The executive told him to reverse a few numbers each month to hit the right numbers. “Just do whatever it takes to make those numbers,” Martin was told.

In Good Company was written nine years ago when Martin, still in his formation period as a Jesuit, was recuperating from mononucleosis in Nairobi, Kenya. After returning to work, he stored the 202-page book on a computer disk. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that he considered publishing it.

Telling the story

He decided to edit the manuscript as lightly as possible. As he put it, he preferred “to let that younger person -- still fresh with memories of the first stirrings of a vocation, still carrying the glow of the Long Retreat, still full of definite opinions about religious life: that is, still very much a new Jesuit -- tell the story the way he saw it during those long, idle months in East Africa.”

Martin, now 40, said it took him only a couple of weeks to write the book, and that publishing it wasn’t his motivation.

“I had so much to write about,” he told NCR in a telephone interview from his office at America, the Jesuit magazine of which he is an associate editor. “I wanted to get it all down before I forgot it. It was such a clear time for me, from disgruntled executive to happy Jesuit. The story told itself.”

The decision to edit little meant being open about his personal life, before and after ordination.

“It’s necessary to include chastity and sexuality if you’re going to discuss religious life with any honesty,” he said. “Chastity is what people want to know about.”

It also gave Martin a clearer picture of what had happened.

“For the first time I really understood how God was at work in my life,” he said. “When you write, the order becomes more evident. God’s graces were more apparent.”

Discussing religious life is a fairly new venture for Martin, who admits his early understanding of Catholicism came mostly from several years of religion classes outside Catholic schools. But in the driven, often ruthless world of GE, a world that eventually gave him stomach pains and migraines, he began to realize he needed more than a successful career.

‘You were your number’

Martin’s disgust at corporate practices grew even more in response to Welch’s efforts to make GE “lean and mean,” which meant laying off thousands of employees. “That same month, during downsizing, Jack Welch decided to renovate the CEO’s office in the building,” Martin wrote, explaining that even though corporate headquarters was in Connecticut, “Welch enjoyed having a private office in New York, which he visited roughly two or three days a month.”

Martin didn’t find the environment any kinder after he moved to the GE capital in Stamford, Conn., where many people had been assigned a number summarizing their potential. Martin’s responsibilities had him hiring and placing people in mid-level finance jobs. Many people had been assigned a number.

“It very much reminded me of Brave New World -- you were your number,” he wrote. “Managers called up asking for a job candidate and, after I provided a lengthy explanation of someone’s strengths or weaknesses, they would say, ‘Forget it, she’s just a 2.’ Or, ‘Jim, do you have any 1s for me?’ Like we were playing ‘Fish.’ With people.”

Martin’s stress level on biofeedback tests got so high his psychiatrist tried to calm him with guided meditation. Through talking with the psychiatrist, Martin, who had first explored the idea of becoming a priest two years earlier after discovering Thomas Merton on a PBS special, realized that the priesthood was exactly what he wanted.

Changing his mindset took time. While still at GE, he was asked by the Jesuits to make an eight-day retreat. He automatically asked the retreat director to fax him the “agenda.” And once accepted, while studying the life of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola, Martin concluded Ignatius had “a tenacity” that made Martin think the saint might have done pretty well at GE.

Martin’s own tenacity has served him well, especially at the hospice in Kingston, his first assignment to the developing world. Much was hard to take at first, but he came to care about the people and found a peace he had never known.

He recalls sitting on his porch reading, listening to the parakeets in the tall pine trees. “I heard from the cathedral, which stood but a few paces from the school, Easter songs drifting about in the warm Jamaican air, and I thought quite suddenly -- Hey, I’m happy! It was something of a surprise, after the weeks of struggling, and an entirely pleasant one at that.”

He reflected on the various changes in his life and discovered what has helped him through. “It was amazing to realize that, in just two years, prayer had become a central element of my life, almost as regular as breathing. If for one day I didn’t pray, I felt off-center, out of touch with the deepest part of myself -- the bond that tied me to God.”

Following his two years in Jamaica, Martin studied philosophy for two years at Loyola University in Chicago, worked in Africa for two years -- an experience that led to his first book, This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa (Orbis, 1999) -- studied theology for four years at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., and served for a year at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was ordained in 1999.

Besides Martin’s work at America, his present ministry includes living in community with fellow Jesuits, attending daily Mass, a daily hour of prayer, giving spiritual direction and continuing to serve at St. Ignatius Church on weekends.

“It’s a typical Jesuit working life,” he says.

Like so many in Manhattan, his typical life was disrupted by the extraordinary events of Sept. 11. The evening of the attack on the World Trade Center, Martin headed to a building on Manhattan’s West Side where victims were to have been brought. “I thought, ‘This is where the church needs to be. This is where the Jesuits need to be,’ ” he said.

The Spirit among death

Since few victims were found, he went the next day to a hospital to counsel family members. The following day he asked a police officer if priests were needed at the site of the attack. The officer flagged down a police car that took Martin right to what has been called Ground Zero.

Martin went back more than half a dozen times, accompanied by Jesuit seminarians from Fordham University.

“It’s very moving down there,” he said, especially seeing various groups -- police, firefighters, rescue workers, the Salvation Army -- working together. “There’s a strong feeling of the Spirit at work, of people pulling together. Especially in the first few days, it was amazing to feel the Spirit at work among all that death.”

Martin, who didn’t know any of the victims, approached the workers at the site casually, asking them how they were doing, leaving them the opportunity to open up. Some did, others just needed a friendly conversation. Some, like the ironworkers, were unprepared for their task. “They’d say, ‘When I started my career I didn’t know I’d be pulling out dead bodies,’ ” Martin said.

On the Sunday after the Tuesday attack, Martin said Mass a couple yards from the ruins. Various signs had been spray painted around the area, marking different sites such as those for eye washing and for the morgue. At the space where Martin had said Mass, someone later spray-painted in big orange letters: “Body of Christ.”

Retta Blaney is a freelance writer living in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001