In memoriam Cardinalis Martini: Carlo Maria Martini, a bishop who dared

As a convert of 8 years, I don’t know much about the recently deceased Cardinal Martini. But on, a conservative Catholic news service from Austria, I read the following comment, written by an obviously clergyman whose log in name is “Ottaviani”: “His Eminence was a fine gentleman. We were of contrary opinion regarding problems concerning the faith. But he was a marvellous human being and I was lucky to have met him thrice in Rome”. This made me curious. While searching for more information in the web, I was astonished to find out that the secular media reported extendedly of his death last weekend, but all of them portrayed him as the progressivist Church critic. Today on facebook I came across the following article written by an Italian Vatican expert, perhaps it gives us a better understanding of the Cardinal’s life and work:

Today’s Requiem for Cardinal Martini

From Monday Vatican
By Andrea Gagliarducci

«A bishop must also dare». It is Carlo Maria Martini’s word. Cardinal, biblist, archbishop of Milan for 22 years, Carlo Maria Martini died Friday, August 31. He was 85. His death is in some ways a signpost: it represents that an era of the Church is going to come to an end. Many consider Martini as a «symbol» of the progressive Catholicism. In fact, this is reductive, as reductive is any categorization. Can a scholar – who because of his job and his passion was used to go beyond, run “intellectual” risks, dare – be labeled in such a simplistic way? Carlo Maria Martini was above all a man who continuously raised questions and searched for new openings. So many openings that he was also able to seduce the «lay world», as well as he seduced the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), the terrorist Communist group active in Italy especially from the 60s to the mid-80s.

Milan 1984

The importance of Carlo Maria Martini cannot be understood without understanding a bit of the Italian contemporary history. Italy is a country with one thousand and more contrasts. Italian history is made of dualisms. And there are – and many – during the 70s. They are called Anni di Piombo, years of lead. During those years, extra-parliamentary movements of red and black side (i.e. leftist and rightist) undertook action, with bombings and shootings. During those years, ideological struggle risks to become a civil war, with no opportunity of mediation. Then, after the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro – the leader of the Christian Democracy who was launching a center-oriented administration with the support of Communist Party (a non-official support, described as of the «not no confidence») – the activism of terrorist groups diminishes.

Milan, June 13, 1984. A stranger get to the Archbishop House. The bishop is Carlo Maria Martini. He had been surprisingly “catapulted” to the top of the biggest diocese of the world by John Paul II, who appointed him archbishop of Milan on December, 29 1979, when Martini has not still been ordained bishop and has no pastoral experience: he is the rector of the Gregorian University. The stranger enters in the Archbishop’s House, and shows up to don Paolo Cortesi, the then Martini’s secretary. While Cortesi is at the telephone, the stranger leaves on the table three bags. The bags contains three Kalashnikovs with magazines, a Beretta rifle, an automatic musket, three guns, a bazooka rocket, four grenades, two magazines and 140 bullets. It is the entire arsenal of the Comitati Comunisti Rivoluzionari (Revolutionary Communist Committes), a leftist terrorist group considered contiguous to the Red Brigades – this latter kidnapped and killed Moro. The arsenal was given to Cardinal Martini as a symbol of the definitive end of the «armed struggle» and to urge the mediation of the Church for a «political, human and social reconciliation».

That Martini was chosen to carry out this action is revealing of how much the archbishop of Milan became – within four years – a reference point. He – who would never imagine to be a bishop – as one his first acts as archbishop of Milan established a “School of Word” , in order to let the People of God understand the Sacred Scriptures by Lectio Divinas. The School of Word was an amazing success. Further on, he would raise the Schools of Social and Political Formation, and the «Non believers teacher desk», for those who search for faith.

«One must dare», Carlo Maria Martini used to say. Martini so much dared in dialoguing with terrorist that he went to prison to speak with Red Brigades militants. «I listened to them – Martini said – I prayed for them and I also baptized a couple of twins born by terrorists during a process».

Loreto, 1985

Martini was also appointed president of the Preparatory Committee of the General States of the Italian Catholic Church, to be held in Loreto, in 1985. A short parenthesis is due. At the time of Loreto meeting, Italian ecclesial movements long upheld the so-called «religious option», i.e. living privately the faith, without putting faith-based questions in the public debate. Practically, speaking in «lay terms», act publicly without any reference to any religious belonging. In Italy . where there was a party, the Christian Democracy, bearing Catholic values – the choice worked. In fact, there was no need to affirm the «Catholic» identity. At the same time, Pope was John Paul II, and he came from Poland. There, being Catholics was a political fact, and the religious identity had to be claimed, as well as religious freedom. Even in Italy the wind was changing: the Catholic party was losing electoral ground, and political parties in general were going to be always less important. And so Martini’s line – considered progressive, and in fact in-line-with times – was upturned by a John Paul II’s speech in Loreto. The Pope did not want to disown progressive wing of the Church, he just wanted to give Italian Church a new direction. This was considered the Martini’s defeat. It was not. In fact, the year after Martini was appointed president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, and he kept the post until the 1993.

Rome, 1999

From Loreto on, Martini will be a continuing gad to the Pontificate and to the Church. He is full of ideas, and he knows how to tell them. In 1999, Martini will publicly propose to John Paul II the convocation of a Third Vatican Council during the Special Synod for Europe. More recently, he would explain that «surely the Church would need anytime to convoke a Council, to confront with the diverse and new languages. I feel this need, because it seems to be that there is a certain difficulty in the common understanding. I do not think, on the other hand, that it is to be convoked a Council like the Second Vatican Council – i.e. dedicated to all the problems of the Church and its relationship with the world. I think that a new Council should be focused on just one or two topics and, after 10-15 years, once these topics are examined and exhausted, convoke a new Council, focused as well on just a few core topics».

Maybe he reached this conclusion by observing, in 1962 – when he was student and then professor of the Biblic Pontifical Institute – the meetings of the Council’s fathers, their ardor. He also was aware that there was a whole world changing, and not everybody liked it and was capable to understand what was going on.

The spiritual legacy

«A bishop must dare». And Martini dared until the end. Even suffering the Parkinson’s disease and because of it he progressively lost his voice, he never missed to be present and vibrant in the public debate. Until this June – when he was conscious that his illness got to a terminal state – he answered to the readers of the Corriere della Sera, the most developed Italian newspaper that gave him a weekly “letters column”.

In the end, to really undestand who was card. Carlo Maria Martini, his life must be re-read on his reflection on Bible perspective. His not-unexpected death naturally brings to re-read the book considered the card. Martini’s «spiritual legacy»: «Night time conversations in Jerusalem» is a interview-book Martini wrote with his Austrian Jesuit brother Georg Sporschill. He wrote his book while living in Jerusalem, where he established after resigning from his archbishop charge in Milan as he turned 75 to reprise his studies on Bible (he was obliged to get back to Italy in 2008, even because of the aggravation of his disease). In this book, Martini bared completely his soul. He recounted that he had «some difficulties with God», since he could not «understand why he let his son suffer on the Cross». He admitted that «also when I was bishop, I sometimes could not look at a crucifix because I was tortured by this question». He could not even accept the death, he asked himself if God could not save men from death after Christ’s death. And then, he understood that «without death, we could not give ourselves completely to God. We would always keep some emergency exit open». And instead – he maintained – one should consign his hope to God and believe in Him. «I – he said – hope to be able to pronounce with my death this Yes to God».

These are words of a man in a continuing search. That is probably why his interventions have never passed unnoticed and raised up debates. He dialogued and made openings on issues like in-vitro fertilization, euthanasia, civil partnerships, adoption for singles. He often asked for a Third Vatican Council to encourage a renovation wind in the Church. He opened to the dialogue with the non-believers – in fact being a precursor of the Benedict XVI’s Courtyard of Gentiles. These topics brought public opinion to consider him the leader of the «progressive wing of the Church», a sort of anti-Pope, an icon to set against the «traditional wing», an option to the John Paul II before and Benedict XVI after magisteriums.

Not an anti-Pope

But he was not. Carlo Maria Martini was above all a man of faith. His words were not just destructive critics, they mostly aimed to open discussions and to leave some problem on the table, remembering in some ways Benedict XVI’s style. Even if Martini and Benedict XVI did not share all the ideas, they shared sincere esteem and cordiality. Benedict XVI and Martini met for the last time on June, 3, in Milan, where the Pope was for the Families International Meeting. The meeting lasted seven minutes, and perhaps they renewed with a wink the moments of the 2005 Conclave. Martini was considered the leader of the «left wing», but he did not want to be voted as Pope. He already suffered of Parkinson’s disease, he knew that he would degenerate, and this was decisive for him. So, the left wing voted for the Argentine Jesuit cardinal Bergoglio, but after three polls Bergoglio did not gain a sufficient majority to be elected. Martini tailored Bergoglio’s votes to Ratzinger. Almost once, he and Ratzinger were seen arriving together in the Sistine Chapel, while supporting the one with the other.

The bishop

The last book by Carlo Maria Martini is «Il Vescovo», The Bishop. The book is part of the project by the Turin based publishing house Rosenberg&Sellier to get back to the full meanings of «ill words» of our times. Il vescovo is almost an autobiographical book. One part of the book is dedicated to the dialogue with “non believers”. Martini maintained that there is the need to distinguish between the drift of fashions and the attention to the values. «One should not delude himself – he wrote – that even in the most traditional dioceses there are just a few (of atheistic, agnostic or religious indifferent people), as there are just a few people far from any pastoral activity. These people is reached by information on the Church filtered by newspapers and television, where speaking coldly and arrogantly about religious things is trendy». So, how one can communicate the Church in a proper way?” Martini remembers the Giovan Battista Montini’s continuing question (Montini was archbishop of Milan before of his election as Pope Paul VI): «What will the man of modernity think or understand of what I am saying?»

A missed journalist

Martini deeply lived this question, as much that he dreamed to be a journalist when he was a little boy – Martini revealed it to the Corriere della Sera journalists when he was hosted to an editorial staff meeting the last June, 19. «It seemed to me – he said – the eligible job to understand life, that is different every day”. In 1991, he dedicated a pastoral letter to medias, Il Lembo del Mantello (The Cloak’s limb), and there he maintained that medias must mediate. «Mediator – Martini wrote – is he who translate. This means that he cannot be a rubber stamp (a mailbox), nor a megaphone, nor one who literally translates every word from one code to another. Mediator is who takes the risks of any translation. In concrete words, translate means to go to essential, to search for the sense of a story in itself and in its contest, and tell it with ‘lively’ words”. Maybe the sense of Carlo Maria Martini’s whole life is in these words. He dedicated his life to the study of the Word and to the dialogue with lively words, remaining faithful to his Episcopal motto: «Pro veritate adversa diligere”, that means: “For the love of the truth, face readily the difficulties». Among these difficulties, there is the one of seeing his thought labeled, categorized, mediated in a partial way. Maybe to find the purest Martini’s thought there is the need to look at the origins of his thought, tracing back until the vocation that flourished very soon in him, when he was 17.

An era has changed

With Carlo Maria Martini, one of the most important character of the post-Council season is missing. It has been a season with a lively cultural debate. It has been at the same time a revamping and adjusting season. Martini’s death – occurred almost symbolically in the Year of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council – is perhaps a milestone. With the Martini’s missing, one of the last authoritative voices of the post-Council season, the signs for a new era of the Church are becoming to be evident. It is now time for a new debate, a new challenge. There will be new characters and new ideas. This is why Carlo Maria Martini’s death is important for the universal Church, and not only for the impact he had in Italian affairs. It is in some ways the end of a world. To whom the terrorist of today will consign their arms?

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8 Responses to In memoriam Cardinalis Martini: Carlo Maria Martini, a bishop who dared

  1. Giovanni A. Cattaneo says:

    The embers of hell burn a little brighter today.


  2. Gertrude says:

    Giovanni: That is a very unchristian remark. I know little about Cardinal Martini, but I do know that Our Blessed Lord commanded that we LOVE. Yesterdays gospel was quite explicit and we should all learn that it is not enough to appear outwardly pious if inwardly we are unable or do not try to practice the teachings of Our Blessed Lord, and indeed of our Holy Church.
    God bless you anyway and may the Cardinal, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


  3. toadspittle says:

    “The embers of hell burn a little brighter today.” Giovanni tells us, and he, presumably, knows what he’s talking about.
    But..what the devil does he mean? And how is it that Giovanni apparently has privileged information into the internal machinations of Hell, anyway?

    Does he know someone of authority in the boiler room? A friend, perhaps?

    We should be told, thinks Toad.

    Waddya say, Giovanni?


  4. Giovanni A. Cattaneo says:

    Opinion only take it for what it is. Yes, my attitude and comment is indeed unchristian, then again so was he.


  5. toadspittle says:

    Is that the way it’s supposed to work, Giovanni?


  6. toadspittle says:

    By Giovanni’s reasoning, if you are talking to someone unreasonable, best be unreasonable yourself. If you’re talking to a fascist, be fascist. Well, it might work.

    Interesting to read that Martini really wanted to be a journalist.
    But things went pear-shaped and he ended up a cardinal.
    Just didn’t get the right breaks.


  7. confiteor says:

    Martini, in an interview the day before his death said that “the Church was 200 years out of date”. He previously made controversial statements about condoms, priests marrying etc. The Pope praised him but did not attend his funeral. The Guardian or Independent noted that his death was very underreported in Italy and asked why; that evening Corriera della Sera (sp.?) carried an article on Martini. And indeed his controversial remarks are not mentioned here.

    Perhaps all this is why Giovanni, who seems to be in the know, and must be Italian, relishes the flames of hell, having decided that that’s where M was.

    I’d never heard of M till his passing.


  8. JP says:

    I knew nothing of Cardinal Martini until his death. My understanding is that he was in favor of the use of condoms for people with AIDS, not for everyone. It seems to me that he was a great man, greatly admired by John Paul II and clearly respected by Pope Bennedict, who did not bludgeon people with opinion but spoke directly and honestly. He was a Cardinal of the Church who but for his ailing health, was seen by the highest members of the Catholic Church as a potential worthy successor to St. Peter. I pray for his intercession for me and my family and his forgiveness for Giovanni’s prejudiced remarks.


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