Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., the retired Archbishop of Milan, passed away peacefully on August 31 at the age of 85. Biblical scholar, retreat master, expert in Ignatian spirituality, and a popular pastoral shepherd, Martini will be remembered as a great Jesuit hero who rendered yeoman service to the Church Universal; for a time, he was even considered a serious possible candidate for the papacy. In a “Washington Post” article published September 7, religion reporter Alessandro Speciale wondered if Martini” was the “last liberal Catholic bishop”; and Tom Heneghan, the religion editor of the Huffington Post, mourned Martini as “a symbol of Vatican II” who “represented the Church that might have been.”
Just a few weeks before his death, on Aug. 8, Martini gave a final interview to his fellow Jesuit Fr. George Sporschill, and an Italian friend named Federica Radice Fossati Confalonieri. Radice has told Italian media outlets that Martini read and approved the text of the interview, intending it as a sort of “spiritual testament” to be published after his death. The interview was, in fact, published posthumously by “Corriere della Sera,” and it has provoked some sensational headlines, including this one from the September 3 edition of the “Belfast Telegraph”: “Vaticanis rocked by Cardinal Martini’s damning words from beyond the grave.” So what on earth did this respected scholar and Church leader say?
Commenting on the situation of the Church, he began by observing: “The church is tired, in the Europe of well-being and in America. Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous. Do these things, however, express what we are today? … Well-being weighs on us. We find ourselves like the rich young man who went away sad when Jesus called him to be his disciple.”
Asked who might help the Church today, Martini continued: “Father Karl Rahner often used the image of the embers hidden under the ash. I see in the church today so much ash under the embers that often I’m hit with a sense of impotence. How can we liberate the embers from the ash, to reinvigorate the fires of love? For the first thing, we have to seek out these embers. Where are the individuals full of generosity, like the Good Samaritan? Who have faith like the Roman centurion? Who are enthusiastic like John the Baptist? Who dare the new, like Paul? Who are faithful like Mary Magdalene? I advise the Pope and the bishops to seek out twelve people outside the lines for administrative positions, people who are close to the poorest, who are surrounded by young people, and who try new things. We need to be with people who burn in such a way that the Spirit can spread itself everywhere.”
Asked to recommend “tools against the exhaustion of the Church,” Martini suggested three: conversion, the Word of God, and the sacraments. Concerning conversion, the Cardinal elaborated: “The church must recognize its errors and follow a radical path of change, beginning with the pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals compel us to take up a path of conversion. Questions about sexuality, and all the themes involving the body, are an example. These are important to everyone, sometimes perhaps too important. We have to ask ourselves if people still listen to the advice of the church on sexual matters. Is the church still an authoritative reference in this field, or simply a caricature in the media?”
In his remarks about the Word of God – his lifelong love and field of research – I can hear him speaking as a Jesuit and a veteran of the “Spiritual Exercises.” “The Word of God is simple, and seeks out as its companion a heart that listens. … Neither the clergy nor ecclesiastical law can substitute for the inner life of the human person. All the external rules, the laws, the dogmas, are there to clarify this internal voice and for the discernment of spirits.” (Similar claims causedSt.Ignatius Loyola to be arrested three times by the Inquisition. In each case, he was fully exonerated and vindicated.)
In his remarks on the sacraments, the retired Archbishop suggested that they “are not an instrument of discipline, but a help for people in their journey and in the weaknesses of their life.” He went on to plead for the Church to extend compassion and to make room for at least some divorced and remarried Catholics. He concluded the interview by declaring: “The church is 200 years behind the times. Why doesn’t it stir? Are we afraid? Is it fear rather than courage? In any event, the faith is the foundation of the church. Faith, trust, courage. I’m old and sick, and I depend on the help of others. Good people around me make me feel their love. This love is stronger than the sentiment of distrust that I feel every now and then with regard to the church inEurope. Only love defeats exhaustion. God is love. Now I have a question for you: What can you do for the church?”
This last interview well captures, I think, both Cardinal Martini’s prophetic boldness and his deep love and loyalty for the Church. While he and the present Pontiff surely disagreed about many things, they held one another in high regard. In fact, Pope Benedict sent a telegram of condolence to the Martini’s family and to the priests and people of Milan, remembering the late Cardinal as a man “who served the Gospel and the Church … generously” as “an expert teacher, an authoritative biblical scholar, … a beloved Rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University and of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and a wise and diligent Archbishop of the Ambrosian Archdiocese [Milan].” American Vatican expert, Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., has suggested that “if there was a young Martini in the church today, he would not be made a bishop or cardinal.” For the sake of the Church’s long-term health, we can only hope and pray that Father Reese is wrong…
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.