«A bishop must also dare».  These are Carlo Maria Martini’s words. Cardinal, Bible scholar, Archbishop of Milan for 22 years, Carlo Maria Martini died on Friday, August 31. He was 85. His death is in some ways a milestone marking the end of an era in the Church. Many considered Martini as a «symbol» of progressive Catholicism. In fact, this is reductionist, as such characterizations often are. Can a scholar, whose job and passion was to always go beyond, to take risks, to dare… be labeled in such an over-simplistic way? Carlo Maria Martini was above all a man who continuously raised questions and sought new venues of discourse. So many that he was able to co-opt even the “lay world”, as he seduced the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), the Communist terrorist group active in Italy, particularly from the 60s to the mid-80s.

Milan 1984

The importance of Carlo Maria Martini cannot be fully grasped without some understanding of Italian contemporary history. Italy is a country of contrasts. Italian history is made of dualisms. And there were many during the 70s. They are called Anni di Piombo, years of lead (in reference to lead bullets). During those years, the extra-parliamentary «red» and «black » movements (i.e. leftist and rightist groups) are active and responsible for bombings and shootings. Ideological struggles risked becoming a full fledge civil war, with no chance of mediation. Then, after the widely condemned abduction and killing of Aldo Moro – the leader of the Christian Democrats who was forming a centrist  government with the unofficial support of the Communist Party, a support described with the double negative of «no no-confidence» – the activity of terrorists groups diminishes.

Milan, June 13, 1984: A stranger arrives at the Archbishop’s House. The resident occupying it is Carlo Maria Martini. He had been surprisingly «catapulted» to the top post at the biggest diocese of the world by John Paul II, who appointed him Archbishop of Milan on December 29, 1979, when Martini had not even been ordained bishop and had no pastoral experience –he was the Rector of the Gregorian University. The stranger enters the Archbishop’s House, and stands before Don Paolo Cortesi, then Martini’s secretary. While Martini is attending a phone call, the stranger puts on the table three bags. The bags contain three Kalashnikovs, 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 Committees), a leftist terrorist group considered close to the Red Brigades –the latter abducted 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 mediation is revealing of how much the Archbishop of Milan had become – in just four years – a public personality. He who had never imagined he would become a bishop established a «School of the Word» as one of his first acts of his tenure in Milan, in order to let the People of God understand the Sacred Scriptures through Lectio Divinas. The School of the Word was an amazing success. Later, he would set up the Schools of Social and Political Education, and the «Non-Believers’ Teaching Chair», for those who seek faith.

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

Loreto, 1985

Martini was also appointed President of the Preparatory Committee of the General States of the Italian Church, held in Loreto, in 1985. At this point, a parenthetical note is in order:  At the time of the Loreto meeting, Italian ecclesial movements had been maintaining for some time the so-called «religious option», i.e. living the faith privately, without posing faith-based questions in the public arena. This option worked in Italy, because there was already a party, the Christian Democracy, which bear Catholic values. So, there was no need to reaffirm a public «Catholic» identity. At the same time, John Paul II had become the Pope, and he came from Poland. There, to be a Catholic was a political statement, and religious identity had to be fought for, together with religious freedom. Even in Italy things were changing: the Catholic party was losing electoral ground, and political parties in general were becoming less influential. Martini’s approach – considered progressive, but in fact attuned to the times – was overturned in a speech by John Paul II. The Pope did not want to disown the progressive wing of the Church, he just wanted to give the Italian Church a new direction. It was considered a defeat for Martini. It was not. In fact, a year later, Martini was named President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, a post he kept until 1993.

Rome, 1999

From Loreto on, Martini would constantly prod the Pontificate and the Church. He was full of ideas, and he knew how to express them. In 1999, Martini publicly proposed to John Paul II the convocation of a Third Vatican Council – it was during the Special Synod for Europe. Later, he would state that «certainly the Church may need to convoke a Council at any given time, to come face to face with the different world outlooks. I feel this need, because there seems to be some difficulty in reaching a common understanding. I do not think, on the other hand, that it has to be 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 themes and, after 10 to 15 years, once these topics are examined and exhausted, convoke a new Council also focused on just a few themes.»

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

The spiritual legacy

«A bishop must dare». And Martini dared until the end. Even as he was suffering from Parkinson’s and was losing his ability to speak, he never stopped being present and active in the public arena. Up until June – when he was conscious that his illness had reached a terminal state – he answered to the readers of the Corriere della Sera, the Italian newspaper that gave him a weekly «letters column».

In the end, to really understand who Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini really was, his life must be re-read through the perspective of his reflections on the Bible. His not-unexpected death naturally invites us all to re-read the book considered Cardinal Martini’s spiritual legacy, «Night time conversations in Jerusalem». Martini wrote this interview-book with his Austrian Jesuit brother Georg Sporschill. He wrote it while living in Jerusalem, where he had settled to resume his Biblical studies after resigning from his Archbishop post in Milan when he turned 75 (he had to return to Italy in 2008 because of the progression of his illness). In this book, Martini bared his soul completely. 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 tormented by this question». He could not even accept death, and wondered why God would not save men from death, with Christ’s death. But then he realized that «without death, we cannot give ourselves completely to God.  [Not accepting death] would be as if we wanted to keep an emergency exit always available » Instead – he maintained – one should place all hope in God and believe in Him. «I – he said – hope to be able to say Yes to God at the time of my death.»

These are the words of a man in a permanent search. That is probably why his statements never went unnoticed or failed to stir debate. He brought on discussion on issues like in-vitro fertilization, euthanasia, civil partnerships, and adoption for single parents. He often called for a Third Vatican Council to encourage renewal in the Church. He opened up dialogue with non-believers – in fact being a precursor of Benedict XVI’s Gentles’ Courtyard. These topics led public opinion to consider him the leader of the «progressive wing of the Church», a sort of anti-Pope, an icon against the “traditional wing”, an alternative to the magisterium of John Paul II first and Benedict XVI after.

Not an anti-Pope

But he was not. Carlo Maria Martini was above all a man of faith. His words aimed to open up discussion and to set forth important questions, in a similar way to Benedict XVI’s style. Even if Martini and Benedict XVI did not share all the same ideas, they esteemed and were cordial to each other. Benedict XVI and Martini met for the last time on June 3, in Milan.  The Pope was there to participate in the International Meeting of Families. The meeting between the two men lasted seven minutes, and who knows if looking at each other they recalled the 2005 Conclave. Martini was considered the leader of the «left wing», but he did not want to be voted as Pope. He was already suffering the effects of Parkinson’s, and knew his health would deteriorate, and this was decisive for him. So, the left wing voted for the Argentine Jesuit Cardinal Bergoglio, but after three rounds Bergoglio failed to achieve a sufficient majority to be elected. Martini funneled Bergoglio’s votes to Ratzinger. At least on one occasion, he and Ratzinger were seen arriving together to the Sistine Chapel, leaning on each other.

The bishop

Carlo Maria Martini’s last book is «Il Vescovo», The Bishop. The book is part of the project by the Turin-based publishing house Rosenberg&Sellier to restore the full meaning of the «weakened words» of our times. Il vescovo is almost an autobiography. A part of the book is dedicated to dialogue with «non believers». Martini maintained that there is a need to address the drift from fashionable trends, and place attention on values. «We should not fool ourselves thinking that there are only a few (atheistic, agnostic or religious indifferent people), even if we are talking about the most traditional of dioceses, or that only some are away from all forms of pastoral activity. The information about the Church that these people get is filtered by newspapers and television, where speaking with detachment and arrogance about things religious is trendy.» Martini remembered Giovan Battista Montini’s constant concern (Montini was archbishop of Milan before he became Pope Paul VI): «What does the modern man think or understand about what I am saying?»

A missed journalist

Martini always wondered about this same question.  So much so, that as a kid he had wanted to be a journalist, Martini revealed to Corriere della Sera journalists during an editorial staff meeting on June 19. «It seemed to me – he said – the right job to understand ever changing life». In 1991, he dedicated a pastoral letter to the media, Il Lembo del Mantello  (The Hem of the Garment), where he maintained that the media must mediate. «Mediator – Martini wrote – is he who translates. This means that he cannot be just an outlet, or a megaphone, or one who literally translates every word from one code to another. A mediator is someone who takes the risk of interpreting. Specifically, to translate means to go to the essence, to search for the sense of a story in itself and in its context, and to tell it with words that bring it to life.» Maybe the meaning of Carlo Maria Martini’s whole life is in these words. He dedicated his life to the study of the Word and to dialogue, with words full of life, always faithful to his Episcopal motto: «Pro veritate adversa diligere», which means «For love of truth, I willingly go to confront difficulties». Among them, having his way of thinking labeled, categorized, interpreted with a bias. Perhaps to find Martini’s ideas unadulterated, we need to look at the origins of his thought, which go back to a vocation that flourished very soon in him, when he was 17 and joined the Jesuits.

An era has changed

Carlo Maria Martini was one of the most important figures of the post-Council era. An era with a lively cultural debate, renovation and adaptation. Martini’s death –somewhat symbolically on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council – is perhaps a milestone. With Martini –one of the last remaining authoritative voices of the post-Council era—gone, signs for a new era of the Church are becoming more 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 to the universal Church, beyond the impact he had on Italian affairs. It is in some ways the end of a worldview. To whom will the terrorists of today consign their arms?


2 Responses to In memory of Carlo Maria Martini, a bishop who dared

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