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So Long, Corner Office: GE Exec Takes Vow of Poverty


James Martin left the lucrative credit business to become a Jesuit priest.

"Jesus mentions our responsibility to care for the poor, to work on their behalf, to stand with them. In fact, when asked how his followers would be judged he doesn't say that it will be based on where you worship, or how you pray, or how often you go to church, or even what political party you believe in. He says something quite different: It depends on how you treat the poor."

Not exactly the kind of stuff they teach you in business school or corporate America but it's precisely what James Martin, Wharton graduate and former General Electric (GE) executive, preaches and practices as an ordained Jesuit priest bound by an iron vow of poverty.

After a successful six-year career as a finance and human resources executive at one of the most powerful corporations in the world (during the era of Reaganomics and yuppiedom, no less), Martin finally saw the light. Realizing he could no longer participate in the Age of Greed, he instead heeded a calling to rail against it. In 1988, he made the drastic decision to trade his white collar for a clerical one and forgo a cushy corporate salary for one donated entirely to the Church.

Now highly successful but poor, Rev. James Martin, S.J., is culture editor of America, the national Catholic weekly magazine and an award-winning author of several books including his most recent, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. Publisher's Weekly named his bestselling memoir My Life With the Saints one of the "Best Books" of 2006 and gave him the award again the following year with A Jesuit Off-Broadway, which details his service as theological adviser and collaborator of the stage production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

Father Martin is a frequent TV and radio commentator and writer contributing to news outlets across the political spectrum including NPR, PBS, CNN, The History Channel, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Huffington Post, and many others. While he's held court on The O'Reilly Factor, he also serves The Colbert Report as the show's official chaplain.

His appearances on all the various media outlets, the book sales (totaling roughly $300,000), even his $40,000 annual salary at America magazine -- Father Martin doesn't see a dime from any of it. Everything he earns goes directly to the Jesuit community in pursuit of its goal of "helping souls." He lives according to his Ignatian beliefs: simply -- specifically out of two-room home office inside America's Manhattan offices.

Father Martin's riches to rags, or rather robes, journey is an inspiring one. He writes in his book In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, published in 2000, that he wasn't exactly cut out for the rat race. The decision to pursue a career in business was purely practical. While he had real passion for the arts, English, and history, he feared careers in those pursuits couldn't provide financial stability. And so the fast track to success he took, its starting point at the University of Pennsylvania's undergraduate business program. The next stop was Penn's highly prestigious Wharton Business School and, upon graduation in 1982, Martin followed the track out of the Ivy League into GE's high-powered financial management program. He happily transitioned from poor college student to corporate trainee with a Manhattan apartment, designer clothes, expense account, and meals at the famous Brasserie.

But before long, Martin became disillusioned with GE's "lean and mean" strategy, the aim of which was downsizing and layoffs. Without a hint of loyalty to the workers who had faithfully served there, the company laid off thousands of GE careerists. And while Martin was steadily moving up the ranks -- all the way to the highly profitable GE Credit Corporation where he landed a management position -- each job ended up being one thankless incarnation of the last. He was saddled with overtime work, had no personal life, and suffered from stress-related stomach problems.
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