On Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, Stephen Colbert introduced one of the frequent guests to his Comedy Central show with an unusual flourish: “Joining me now [is] chaplain of the Colbert Nation — Father Jim Martin!”
Martin, a 1982 Wharton alumnus and Jesuit priest, smiles and engages Colbert in talk over the recently announced resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Colbert has invited Martin on his show since 2007 and filmed a video with him earlier this year on behalf of America Magazine, the weekly Jesuit publication where Martin, a former 34th Street cartoonist, is an editor-at-large.
As an outspoken writer with 10 books to his name, Martin is one of the most prominent Jesuits in America. Years ago, Martin studied finance without even a thought of entering the priesthood. “There was zero interest while I was at Penn in being a priest,” Martin said in an interview.
Despite identifying as Catholic, Martin did not make the Church a priority in his life while a student. “I went to Mass most Sundays when I wasn’t hungover,” Martin said. The call to worldly success occupied his thoughts, but Martin, along with several other Penn graduates, would go on to devote his life to the Catholic Church.
Converting from a Quaker to a Catholic Priest
Only later, after working for General Electric in the financial training program, did Martin envision a new life for himself. Through the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Martin became interested in entering the religious life. He spoke with his local parish priest, and the idea “just clicked,” Martin said.
Like other members of Catholic religious orders, Jesuits are required to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But that did not deter Martin. He found it “very freeing” to “give everything up and rely on the order.”
The versatility of Jesuit priests also appealed to Martin. As a Jesuit, he could write, work overseas and serve the poor. However, unlike diocesan priests, Jesuits generally do not hold private property. All of the royalties from Martin’s books — many of which were bestsellers — go to the Jesuit order.
The Jesuits, which include Pope Francis among their ranks, are a unique religious order in Catholicism. They are known for their work in education and writing, as well as their often liberal take on Church issues.
Unlike Martin, Father Tom Whittingham, a 2006 Wharton graduate, thought about the priesthood during undergraduate years. He attended the University of Tennessee, where he “had conversations” about the religious life with the local campus minister. In the fall of 2001, he enrolled at Penn in the graduate program in statistics. Little more than a year into the program, he realized that graduate work was not making him happy.
He became heavily involved in the Penn Newman Catholic Center, a space for Catholics on campus, where he often ate breakfast with the priests. After dropping out of the Ph.D. program in his second year, Whittingham worked at the Center for Studies of Addiction while finishing up a master’s degree in statistics. All the while, he felt the call to join the priesthood more strongly.
During one of his breakfast meetings with the local priest, Whittingham finally resolved his decision.
“The pastor asked me if there is some part of you that you don’t think can be accessed or utilized except as a priest,” Whittingham recalled.
On June 13, 2006, Whittingham found out he had been accepted to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the training division for priests in the Philadelphia archdiocese. For him, the decision followed years of discerning his true earthly mission.
“I realized I was most joyful when I was helping in a ministry capacity at the Penn Newman Center,” Whittingham said.
From Profit to Priesthood
Though they attended Wharton years apart from each other, Martin and Whittingham both recall a secular atmosphere in the business school.
“At the time, [the] business ethics in the studies we were doing were really [a] very minor, almost negligible part of our studies,” Martin said.
Whittingham noticed less of an emphasis on financial success at the doctoral level. “I hadn’t gotten into any of the classes that had a real-world focus,” he said. However, school was still “very driven” where “progress is life.”
There wasn’t “a lot of stop and smell the roses,” Whittingham added.
In his pre-professional program, Martin noticed far more of a focus on the bottom line. “There was almost no moral or ethical considerations,” Martin recalled of Wharton during his time as a student, though he admits “that may have changed [by now].”
In one of Martin’s books, “In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience,” he recounts an incident where an advisor tried to persuade him from taking an American poetry class.
“That won’t get you into Goldman [Sachs],” Martin recalls the advisor telling him.
The unadorned lifestyle of a priest is not a traditional choice for Penn graduates, who often pursue more lucrative professions.
“The kind of students that come to Penn are not necessarily the type of students who will discern for the priesthood,” Assistant Director of the Penn Newman Center Jeff Klein said.
While Wharton questioned Martin’s conceptions of profit and poverty, courses in the College of Arts and Sciences often challenged his conception of religious belief itself.
2011 College graduate Eric Banecker, who is studying at Saint Charles to be a priest, remembered being challenged on Catholic doctrine in his English and philosophy classes. After having attended Catholic school through elementary and high school, Banecker appreciated being forced to think critically of his faith.
Ultimately, the pushback “actually confirmed” what Banecker believed about religious issues.
He thinks back to his time at Penn fondly because it helped him foster leadership qualities, even if they didn’t translate into a financial success.
“Penn’s emphasis on the importance of leadership applies beyond typical careers [that] one might associate with Penn,” he said.
Father Martin, despite his apprehensions about Wharton’s lack of ethical focus, still speaks with praise of his time there.
“I love Penn. Even though I didn’t end up doing what I entered Penn to do, I have such a soft spot in my heart for Penn,” he said.
Martin even admits to using some of his business knowledge at Wharton to assist in his clerical duties. While working with the Jesuits in Kenya, Martin helped locals fund their own small businesses using tips learned in school. He also still remembers the “four P’s of marketing” and applies them to his own business transactions on behalf of the Jesuits.
“I got a superb business education,” he said.
Wharton senior James Fangmeyer, who is still in the process of discerning whether or not to become a priest,also sees a practical value in applying a business education to the priesthood.
“Business serves a functional value for any religion,” he said, citing the marketing and business development skills necessary for any parish priest.
Fangmeyer has chosen to not actively pursue the religious life for now, but he has not ruled out the priesthood in the future. He is currently looking forward to his job as an analyst of collaboration networks in the Technological Institute of Monterrey in Mexico.
For all priests and men discerning for the priesthood at Penn, the Newman Center has been a common source of spiritual support.
Newman Centers across the world are rooted in the ministry of British Cardinal John Henry Newman, who suggested a center for Catholics at secular universities. Penn’s Newman Center — founded in 1893 — is the first one of its kind in America.
“We want to give people opportunities to explore their relationship with God, and ultimately move closer to fulfilling that vocation. I’m optimistic that we do help people in the Church,” Klein, the assistant director of the center, said.
From Whittingham’s consistent involvement with Newman Center ministries to Banecker’s role as president of the Newman Center while an undergraduate, the center consistently attracts Catholics looking to develop their faith as students.
Often, the decision to discern for the priesthood comes as jarring to friends, especially non-Catholic ones.
“My Penn friends were among the most surprised when I entered the priesthood,” Martin said, though they are extremely supportive of him.
According to a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Martin even jokingly referenced some of his Jewish friends from Penn giving him advice on which items to give up for Lent, the Christian liturgical season of fasting and repentance.
Fangmeyer’s friends, many of them not Catholic, supported his process of discernment and even have grown accustomed to using specific Catholic terminology.
“I had to explain it to some of my friends who aren’t Catholic by analogy,” Fangmeyer said. He described the added time he would spend thinking about the priesthood to the extra time one would spend with a girlfriend. Except his girlfriend in this case would be Jesus, he said.
Of his process of discernment — “It’s been well-received by my close friends,” he said.
Being Catholic at a Secular University
The Catholic community at Penn, though active in ministry and service, does not dominate campus conversation.
Catholics were a “very vibrant minority” during his time at Penn, Whittingham said. Still, Catholic holidays received less attention than their Jewish counterparts, he said, with few students skipping class to take off on Good Friday — the day in which Catholics commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ — as opposed to students skipping class for major Jewish holidays.
“Catholics almost had fear of standing out,” he said.
Banecker doesn’t recall an “anti-Catholic bias” on campus, referring instead to an “anti-belief bias.” He found the skepticism surrounding traditional religious beliefs a beneficial way to challenge his intellectual convictions.
“Sometimes [debate] is a good thing,” he said.
Martin attributes Penn’s secularity to its founding as a practical institution.
“It’s the difference between being founded as a seminary — as some of the other Ivies were — and [being] founded by Ben Franklin. He was a practical guy,” he said.
Sometimes, Catholic pride ran strong on campus due to a few committed leaders.
While Whittingham was a student, he remembers 2007 College alumnus Stephen Danley holding a “mass club” on Sunday nights at Saint Agatha-Saint James Church on 38th and Chestnut streets. Danley, also a member of the varsity basketball team, would fill four to five pews with his friends for the 9 p.m. mass.
He was “pretty passionate about his Catholic faith,” Whittingham said.
As are the Penn Quakers, as few as they may be, declaring their lives in service to the faith.Comments powered by Disqus
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