Cardinal Martini: the risk of faith
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini’s claim to renown during the first half of his life was that he was a world authority on a very arcane science with very few adepts: the critical analysis of the manuscripts of the Bible. So why did people sit up and listen whenever he spoke after he became Archbishop of Milan in 1979?
In one of his many books, Le Eta’ Della Vita, Martini speaks of an Indian proverb that says that there are four stages in a person’s life.
In the first we learn, in the second we teach, in the third we reflect, and in the fourth we beg, even without realising it!
Life taught him that there was so much he did not know that he sought better understanding and insight into the human condition. Knowing how to listen, really and deeply, made him capable of speaking with authority to the men and women of his time, believers and unbelievers.
His first love, and his best listening ear, was for the Bible, and he dedicated huge amounts of his time and energy to giving it a more important place in the life of the Church and of all Christians.
The Duomo in Milan would fill with young people who flocked to discover, with his help, the riches of the Word of God, and his writings and speeches were a constant attempt to make the Word come alive and active, still the Good News of Jesus Christ.
What perhaps made him different from other commentators on the contemporary scene was his positive judgement of our world: he did not see contemporary culture as being closed to truth or to the message of salvation; on the contrary he recognised a deep thirst for meaning.
No longer satisfied with ideologies or consumerism, our world desperately seeks meaning and needs to hear a word of hope, which ultimately has to be transcendent.
Instead of proposing ready-made recipes or a return to the past, he was ready to involve himself in this vital quest, sharing its risks and perils and never shying away from the difficult questions, whether about bioethics, politics or justice in the world.
The motto he chose for his Episcopacy is very revealing: Pro veritate adversa diligere (for the sake of truth let us embrace difficulties).
He was convinced that in each one of us dwell both a believer and an unbeliever, and some years after his appointment as bishop he set up the Cattedra Dei Non Credenti.
He invited believers and unbelievers to discuss the big questions of life, from the silence of God before human suffering, to life after death, faith and violence, and the prayer of unbelievers: he saw this as an opportunity for dialogue in earnest, but also a true challenge for believers to give a reason for their hope in what sometimes feels like a hopeless world.
One of his most striking books was a long interview with a Jesuit who works with street children in Bucharest: he called it Conversazioni Notturne A Gerusalemme, Sul Rischio Della Fede.
There he says: “The night is the time of darkness, of imaginings, when the senses become more sensitive. If, as someone once said, the middle of the night is the beginning of the day, these conversations in Jerusalem, the place where the history of the Christians had its beginning, are also conversations of the ways of faith in uncertain times.”
His dream for the Church was spelled out in his last interview, a Church that takes listening more seriously, firstly to the Word of God and then to the sufferings and joys of humanity.
While proposing new solutions to new problems or to replace older answers that no longer seemed helpful to him, he insisted the Church’s primary mission was spiritual, reminding us that the world is under God’s loving domain.
This great master was listened to because he was seen to be begging for morsels of truth as he humbly journeyed towards its fullness, which he believed to be the God of the Bible.
As the Corriere della Sera said in an editorial, Cardinal Martini was above all an understanding father in a society that has ever fewer fathers, even though it so desperately needs them.
Fr Pace is the Maltese Jesuit Provincial and teaches moral theology at the University of Malta.