He was once seen as a possible Pope, and remained throughout his life the torch-bearer of liberal Catholicism. Cardinal Martini, who died last week, was also a biblical scholar and an influential voice in Vatican councils. Above all, he was an intelligent and loyal servant of the Church.
Cardinal Carlo Martini’s death has robbed the Italian Church – indeed, the wider Catholic Church – of a man to whom it looked for direction, wisdom and inspiration for more than 30 years. The world-renowned Scripture scholar, teacher and Archbishop Emeritus of Milan (with more than five million inhabitants, the world’s largest archdiocese,) distinguished himself as an internationally respected Church leader. Appointed to the See of St Ambrose and St Charles Borromeo by Pope John Paul II at the age of 52, he became a towering giant among the College of Cardinals.
It was no surprise that in the three days that his body lay in state in Milan’s Duomo, following his death at the age of 85, more than 200,000 people paid their respects. His burial on Monday was little short of a state funeral, televised throughout Italy and in many countries beyond.
Carlo Maria Martini was born in Orbassano, near Turin, on 15 February 1927. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1944 and studied philosophy and theology at two theological centres in northern Italy. He was ordained a priest at the age of 25 in July 1952. Six years later, he was awarded a doctorate (summa cum laude) at the Pontifical Gregorian University for a dissertation on historical aspects of the resurrection of Jesus. After teaching for several years at Chieri, he was awarded a second doctorate (summa cum laude) at the prestigious Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome for a thesis considering questions about the text of Luke’s Gospel in the light of the Codex Vaticanus and the Bodmer Papyrus XIV. Martini took his final vows as a Jesuit in 1962.
From 1962, he held a chair in the very difficult area of textual criticism at the Biblicum. From the 1960s, he worked as the only Catholic among an elite group of scholars, headed by Professor Kurt Aland, at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research at Münster, Germany. They produced their first edition of The Greek New Testament in 1966, and he was still on the team when the fourth edition appeared in 1993. Every version of The Greek New Testament contains Martini’s name.
Martini went on to become rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute (1967-78), where he created a programme for Catholic students to visit Israel to study Judaism, biblical archaeology and Hebrew. As a result of his work in Jerusalem, he became deeply attached to the city. In July 1978, he was named rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, but just over a year later his life was radically changed when he was named by the new Pope to head the Ambrosian Diocese. The biblical scholar who had never held a parish post became the shepherd of one of the Church’s most important dioceses for 22 years.
Named to the College of Cardinals in 1983, Martini was immediately appointed to four different Vatican bodies, instead of the one or two on which most new cardinals serve. He brought to these posts a knowledge and understanding of humanity that was already evident through his teaching, retreat preaching and writings, as well as fluency in seven modern languages and the ancient languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
Some of Martini’s thinking – particularly in relation to remarried divorcees, the recognition of same-sex unions and the subject of bioethics – have sparked debate in recent years, with certain critics claiming that his questioning was too open for Catholic moral doctrine. But his dissenters failed to note that his clear declarations in defence of marriage, life and against abortion were at the core of his teaching and pastoral ministry, along with his calls in favour of equality in education and his proposals for a careful and intelligent integration of Muslims into Milanese society.
Those who wished to label him the ‘liberal archbishop’ or the ‘anti-Pope’, or to set him against either Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI, were wrong in their immature and uninformed judgement. His Christianity was profoundly rooted in the Word of God, in the Sacraments and in the Church. He was an intelligent, loyal servant of the Church. Following his retirement from Milan in 2002, Martini focused his interests on biblical studies, Catholic-Jewish dialogue and praying for peace in the Middle East. When my superiors assigned me to Scripture studies in Rome, and then Jerusalem, I began to appreciate Martini’s immense contribution to the biblical world. It was always a thrill when he would come to visit us at the Biblicum, celebrate Mass with the students and give an afternoon lecture in the Aula Magna. He walked in wearing a simple black cassock and small pectoral cross. With no notes in hand and only a copy of The Greek New Testament, he taught us how to lead lectio divina sessions with young people, and the following year lectured us on the importance of textual criticism, one of the deadliest topics in Scripture studies. From that point on, he made the topic not only interesting but also necessary.
In one of his later books, Il Vescovo (‘The Bishop’), published by Rosenberg and Sellier in 2011, Martini considers the delicate subject of authority within the Church. He presents readers with two intriguing portraits representing the opposite faces of authority: a rigid one that is incapable of listening, and one that is inspired by the Word of God, taking into consideration the human person.
A bishop is a pastor of men and of souls. He has a huge responsibility because he is the heir to the apostolic tradition; he is the spiritual guide of the Church, the diocese that unites parishes and communities of Christian faithful. If his role is limited to that of authority, neglecting his pastoral task of educating and testifying the Gospel as a humble servant of the Lord’s Church, his real role ceases, becoming instead a role of ecclesiastical authority that is neither prophetic nor linked to a genuine evangelical dimension.
What struck so many who knew Cardinal Martini in his later years, even more than his writing and lectures, was the way in which he dealt with his illness. Though his body was riddled with Parkinson’s disease, he continued to publish books, offer spiritual reflections and answer readers’ questions in a monthly column he wrote, until only a few months ago, for the Sunday edition of Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s most important newspapers. He lived out his suffering in the public eye, bonding and connecting with those living with and suffering from Parkinson’s.
Martini refused to have a nasogastric tube inserted to feed him. He had not been able to swallow for 15 days and was only being kept alive through parenteral hydration. He had reiterated his position in his last book, Credere e conoscere (‘Believing and Knowing’), published by Einaudi last March. Here he appealed to reason, even on the subject of euthanasia: ‘The new technologies, which make increasingly efficient operations on the human body possible, require a dose of wisdom, to prevent prolonging treatments when they no longer benefit the patient.’
Cardinal Martini lived out his episcopal ministry as a bishop of the Second Vatican Council, one who was honest, just, fair and unafraid. He constantly called forth goodness in other people. This great man was able to communicate not just with the faithful but also with people who were far from the faith, bringing the message of the Gospel to everyone. He taught us not to be afraid of dialogue and to reach out. He reminded us that under the smoldering ashes of a Church that is, at times, tired and discouraged, burdened with history and traditions, there are still embers waiting to be fanned into flame.
Carlo Maria Martini SJ, cardinal and biblical scholar, born 15 February 1927, Turin; died 31 August 2012, Gallarate, Italy.
Editorial: Prophet for our times
8th September 2012
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini must have known what he was doing when he gave an interview, to be published after his death, that amounted to a sweeping indictment of the last two papacies. Now that the former Archbishop of Milan has passed away after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, the interview has appeared in the pages of Corriere della Sera where he used to write a regular column, and on pages 8-9 of this edition of The Tablet. Needless to say this is not the usual behaviour of retired cardinal archbishop, but he was no ordinary man. By many accounts he could have been elected pope after the death of John Paul II, but let it be known he was not fit enough for the task.
It is not unreasonable, therefore, to read this interview as an agenda for a papacy that never was, but might have been. It would have been very different from the Ratzinger papacy, with much more emphasis on reform than on continuity. There is currently a discernible sense among Catholics of waiting for the next papacy, with little expectation that the present one will provide any new surprises. What Cardinal Martini seems to have done from beyond the grave, therefore, is to present a manifesto for the next conclave, to be taken up by whoever becomes the standard-bearer of those who think like him – Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, perhaps.
Cardinal Martini’s gift to the Church is to make certain things sayable again at the highest level – for instance that, as he declared on another occasion, Humanae Vitae was a grave mistake; and that the denial of Holy Communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried is an abuse of power and an injustice.
As Cardinal Martini noted, these are among the reasons why the Catholic Church in Europe seems to be losing the allegiance of an entire generation. ‘We have to ask ourselves if people are still listening to the advice of the Church regarding sexuality. Is the Church still an authoritative point of reference in this field or is it just a caricature in the media?’ There was not much doubt where he stood.
People who do not have a vote, tend to vote with their feet. And it is at the heart of Cardinal Martini’s protest that the grand vision of the Second Vatican Council represented by the concept of collegiality has been systematically frustrated. The theory was that the government of the Church belonged essentially to the college of bishops, under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome. And the collegial principle of collaboration and participation reached downwards to dioceses and parishes.
On the contrary, the government of the Church has remained in the hands of the Vatican curia, acting – not always with his knowledge and consent – as agents of the Pope. Collegiality was meant to displace this top-down ultramontane model. But the measures introduced to achieve this after Vatican II were half-hearted and easily thwarted. As a result, Catholics at all levels, from cardinals downwards it seems, feel excluded, lacking a sense of ownership. Cardinal Martini’s own efforts to involve the Milanese faithful in decision-making were frustrated by the Vatican.
This saintly man, greatly loved in his own diocese, has spoken truth to power. ‘The Church is tired in affluent Europe and in America. Our culture has grown old, our Churches are big, our religious houses are empty, the bureaucracy of our Churches is growing out of proportion, our liturgies and our vestments are pompous ... The Church is 200 years behind the times. How come it doesn’t rouse itself? Are we afraid? Fearful instead of courageous?’ This is the authentic voice of an Old Testament prophet, castigating the mighty in the name of the Lord. The Church should be grateful for it.