When the Milanese heard the Duomo’s bells tolling at an unaccustomed hour last Friday, they guessed the reason: Cardinal Carlo Martini had died. Despite his age (85) and sickness (Parkinson’s), his death was felt as a grievous loss by both the Jesuits, the church, the unchurched, and the Jewish community to which he was close. On Thursday Pope Benedict wrote to and about him, praising his “dear brother” for serving the church generously and faithfully for so long. He had been a priest for sixty years. After terms as rector at the Gregorian and Biblical Institute he served as archbishop of Milan from 1980 to 2002.
He was revered by reform-seekers in the Church, in particular for his dream of holding a third Vatican Council which would take up where Vatican II left off in 1965, and further revise dogma and address the decline in priest numbers, women in the Church, sexuality, and the institution of marriage, among other things. Before the 2005 conclave, despite his poor health, he was seen by some as a possible pope. He was a popular figure who commanded great respect from both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
For Jesuits he was a particularly powerful role-model. Not as archbishop or cardinal – Jesuits take a solemn promise not to seek or accept such a role unless the Pope over-rides their objections, and ev then it saddens many Jesuits to see one of Ours don the purple or scarlet. Nor was Martini a role-model because of his brilliant intellect – he wrote many theological tomes in his life and was reputed to speak 11 languages.
But his greatest strength lay in his openness and courage in tackling the most controversial topics. In his Q-and-A column in the leading daily Corriere della Sera, he wrote in an accessible way about issues such as priestly celibacy, homosexuality, using condoms to fight HIV transmission, artificial procreation, embryo donation and euthanasia.
While not at odds with church teaching, his views nevertheless showed his progressive bent. His responses were filled with biblical citations and references to church teachings, but were written as if he were chatting with his readers rather than preaching at them.
He retired from the post of Archbishop at the mandatory age of 75 and fulfilled a dream to study in Jerusalem, before returning to Italy in 2008 and moving into the Jesuit house near Milan where he spent his final years.
The day after his death, the Corriere della Sera published an interview in which he told the paper: “The Church is tired… our culture has grown old, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our religious rites and the vestments we wear are pompous. The church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops.”
Two Irish Jesuit tributes
Twice I invited Cardinal Martini to the Gesu to speak to the community, mainly scholastics from all over the world. My contact was an Italian Jesuit, Father Ambrosetti, who has since died and with whom Martini went on holidays every summer.
My memory of Martini is of a remarkably pastoral priest. Even as Rector of the Biblicum and later of the Gregorian he was actively involved with different groups in the city of Rome. In answer to a scholastic’s question about the role of the priest in today’s world he replied that all we are meant to do is remember that the Church belongs to Jesus Christ and our task is to give the Holy Spirit a hand…and keep a step behind. He told us how when he went to Milan he realised that the priests of the diocese were landed with him for many years, unlike Jesuits who know that they will have a change of superior in six years at most!
Before becoming Bishop he always believed that one could speak about prayer only to small groups; but as Bishop he discovered that you could speak to a whole cathedral and more about prayer by radio connections, especially lectio divina. Going down in the lift after his first visit he breathed a sigh of relief and said how much more enjoyable it had been than he expected. He thought he would be faced with an aggressive group of scholastics. Their friendliness seemed to take him by surprise.
Michael Paul Gallagher:
On Monday last, the day of Cardinal Martini’s funeral I received an email from an atheist dramatist in Milan saying that he felt the loss of an extraordinary spiritual leader. Danilo even complained that the Pope had not come to the funeral (something that was not thinkable: the Italian President did not come but the Prime Minister did, as well as 20,000 others inside and outside the Duomo).
Danilo’s appreciation of Martini was shared by many thinking unbelievers in Italy, including the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica, who published many interviews with the Cardinal. Indeed in the early years as Archbishop of Milan (the biggest in the world, it is said) Martini created a series of annual encounters with non-believers. Even when they moved from the cathedral to the largest hall in the university, it was hard to get a ticket to be present. The tone was never one of mere debating but of respectful searching together.
Another well-known initiative of this Biblical scholar was a monthly meditation on scripture for young people. It too started in the Cathedral but then had to expand, connecting with many churches in the diocese through closed-circuit television. Martini had a gift of leading this lectio divina, uniting his expertise in the Bible with Ignatian spirituality, thus making the texts come alive as prayerful and personal.
If these were two of Martini’s public pastoral activities, what of the man himself? I met him on a number of occasions. For instance he came to the scholastic community of the Collegio del Gesù for an evening every two years. He preferred not to give a talk but simply to respond to our questions. He did so with honesty and a rare quality of reflection. You knew that this man was behind his words and was quietly passionate about his service of the faith. You also sensed his openness to new questions and his desire that the Church should not run away from them. He was not a naïve liberal but a wise man alert to the many challenges of his day.
I heard him preach on a number of occasions. Again, his style was undramatic but quietly intense. Like Newman his focus was ultimately on inner formation of people’s hearts, and like what we know of Newman’s impact, Martini’s sermons invited people to a different kind of listening, ultimately a listening to the Spirit within them. And in ways like Newman, Martini has published many of his preached retreats to clergy and religious (including an annual retreat in a Third World country). These books of meditation (many available in English) capture the style and spirituality of this gifted evangelizer (as the Pope has described him). Indeed Martini was much influenced by Lonergan’s Method in Theology, and especially by its stress on conversion to love as the foundation of religion.
On one occasion he gave me a lift in his car. At that time I was working for the Pontifical Council for Culture. During the journey he questioned me about the day-to-day priorities of the office. He was very well informed and full of suggestions about more creative ways to reach out to today’s cultural situation. Cardinal Martini was a tall and imposing presence, a natural leader, with a style of depth and dignity that could seem distant at times. Yet he was greatly loved by his priests, especially by the younger generation of those he had ordained in his 22 years as Archbishop. In his younger days in Rome he was much involved with the community of S. Egidio which looks after poorer people, some of them living on the streets.
For his tomb in the Cathedral of Milan he had chosen a verse from Psalm 119: “Your Word is a lamp to my steps”. He lived with that lamp and made it real for countless thousands of people.