The Pope who never was

Carlo Maria Martini, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most influential thinkers, died on August 3 at the age of 85 from a rare form of Parkinson’s disease.

The Church needs a leader of deep knowledge and spirituality but with enough understanding of the world and human nature
- Louis Cilia

Martini entered the Society of Jesus in 1944 and was ordained priest in 1952. He specialised in Biblical studies and is especially remembered for his books on spiritual exercises, which have transformed the original Ignatian model.

He was appointed Archbishop of Milan in 1980 and elevated to the cardinalate in 1983. These latter appointments were unusual as Jesuits are not traditionally named bishops.

He retired in 2002 to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem but returned to Milan in 2008 to spend his final years in the Jesuit House in Gallarate outside Milan where he had studied in his younger days in 1944.

Martini was for many years “the Pope in waiting”. To many, he symbolised the reformist spirit of the 1962-65 Vatican Council II. To traditionalists, however, he was a danger to the Church of Christ. At a Synod of Bishops in 1999, he made a veiled call for a Vatican Council III to give local bishops more leeway and “to loosen doctrinal and disciplinary knots that reappear periodically as sore points in the Church”.

The call was brusquely brushed aside by the largely conservative bishops present who were more concerned with undoing some of the previous Council’s reforms than creating new ones with a third Church summit.

Hours after his death, the leading Italian paper Corriere della Sera published his final interview. Church insiders believe that Martini wished that the interview be published after his death in the form of a last will.

Major international media agencies gave prominence to the unusual interview and it was also given due importance on TV channels, radios and newspapers all over the world. What struck most were the words: “The Church is 200 years out of date.” These very same words were headline news on major TV stations, including CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.

Martini further declared: “Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous… The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope and the bishops”.

Martini’s motto as found in his cardinal’s coat of arms was: “For the love of truth, dare to choose adverse situations.” He dared to challenge and was not afraid to face thorny questions such as contraception, beginning of human life, collegiality of bishops, right to refuse treatments by terminally-ill patients, role of women in the Church, and others.

However, the renowned Biblical scholar remained a loyal and respected son of the Church to the end. Tributes poured in for him from the Pope and the Church hierarchy. Many stressed Martini’s role as a respected cardinal who dared tackle sensitive issues with an open mind rather than push them under the carpet. “It wasn’t his role to mount the barricades,” said Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio.

Many are now asking: ‘Who will take up his mantle?’ The worldwide crisis that has engulfed the Church in recent years is crying out for a younger version of Martini. Robert Mickens, Rome correspondent of The Tablet, said of his teachings: “They must be seen in the context of coming from a man who loved the Church and who gave up his life to the institution… A whole generation has been inspired by Martini’s teachings and writings. That is his legacy”.

But, perhaps, the words of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini at the time of the calling of Vatican Council II by Pope John XXIII should also be heeded: “The holy old boy doesn’t realise what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” Later Montini, as Pope Paul VI, was to bear the brunt of the storm unleashed by the Vatican Council. He died wasted and disappointed as the Church veered from one position to another satisfying neither the liberal nor the conservative elements within its fold.

The next Pope will, therefore, need to be a very unusual being. A man of vision and drive, with relative youth to see through a much needed reform in the Church’s institutions and teachings, making the Church more Christ like in its simplicity and less institutionalised. It needs to move out of the shadows and particularly to remove the dust and cobwebs that have accumulated within its institutions through more than 2,000 years of power (sometimes unlimited) and tradition.

To achieve this the Church needs a leader of deep knowledge and spirituality but with enough understanding of the world and human nature to know the limits that can be reached – a fine balance that is rarely found, unless divine intervention makes it possible.

But Christ rules over the Church and this gives us hope that the long and unrelenting passion that the Church is going through at present is only part of the necessary process of cleansing and redemption that is so necessary to make the Church more adapted and relevant to the times.


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