Cardinal Carlo Martini remembered – 1Thomas Rosica
- 8 September 2012
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.