Italian cardinal willing to re-examine delicate church positions

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Although no longer considered a leading candidate to become pope, Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini still is expected to exercise substantial influence within the conclave to elect Pope John Paul II's successor.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini outside the hall where the Synod of Bishops for Europe held Oct. 1-23. (CNS photo by Catholic Press Photo)

Cardinal Martini, 78, retired as archbishop of Milan in 2002 and began living most of each year in Jerusalem where, he said, he continues his Scripture scholarship and prays for peace.

The cardinal is known as a strong pastor and administrator. He once was seen as a leading voice for wider discussion and dialogue on some delicate and controversial church positions, but Biblical studies, Catholic-Jewish dialogue and praying for peace in the Middle East have become the focal points of his retirement.

Cardinal Martini's decision to move to Jerusalem and the fact that he has purchased a burial plot there are concrete reflections of the main points he makes in the speeches and messages he has written in retirement.

In a September 2004 message to a symposium on the Holy Land and interreligious dialogue, the cardinal wrote that Christians who visit Jerusalem should suspend judgment on the political situation there and simply pray for both sides. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become so complicated and painful that even an expert would have trouble sorting it out, he said.

At a November 2004 speech at Rome's Gregorian University, he told Catholics they could not understand their faith unless they understood the Jewish faith practiced by Jesus and his disciples.

"It is vital for the church not only to understand the ancient covenant (between God and the Jewish people) which has endured for centuries in order to launch a fruitful dialogue, but also to deepen our own understanding of who we are as the church," he said.

"It is not enough to be 'anti' anti-Semitism," he said. "We need to build friendships, recognizing our differences, but not allowing them to lead to conflict."

Cardinal Martini also said Christians and Jews must work together on concrete projects of charity, justice and peace, creating mutual trust and fulfilling their religious obligation "to give witness to God's love for humanity."

"Where there is conflict, like in the Middle East, we must be in the middle, promoting dialogue and helping each side to learn the pain of the other," the cardinal said.

Cardinal Martini's leadership as president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences for six years and as a member of the Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops has made him a familiar face among many of his fellow cardinals.

Cardinal Martini has made news with his openness to the possibility of allowing married Latin-rite priests under certain circumstances, ordaining women as deacons and allowing Communion for some divorced Catholics in subsequent marriages not approved by the church.

Priestly celibacy is a "historical decision which could be changed, but I don't think it will be wise to change the decision but to adapt it to the situation of different people," he said in a 1995 interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

On women's ordination, he said in 1996 that a future Vatican council of the world's bishops "could consider the problem, rethinking the whole question."

At the 1999 European Synod of Bishops, he made waves when he proposed a new churchwide council or assembly to unravel "doctrinal and disciplinary knots" like the shortage of priests, the role of women, the role of laity and the discipline of marriage. His carefully worded remarks reflected his belief that the church would benefit from a wider exercise of collegiality. The idea of a new council was not taken up formally by the synod, but was debated privately among participants, with some supporting the proposal and others dismissing it.

During that synod, Cardinal Martini said he was convinced that the church can best evangelize in the West through dialogue, not demands.

"We cannot force anyone to come to church. We can try to show that, even in a technological and modern society, it is possible for a community to live the Gospel with simplicity and joy," he told Catholic News Service.

Born in Orbassano, near Turin, Italy, Feb. 15, 1927, Carlo Maria Martini entered the Society of Jesus in 1944, was ordained a priest July 13, 1952, and took his final vows as a Jesuit in 1962.

The cardinal, a biblical scholar, never held a parish post. With doctorates in theology and biblical studies, he was a seminary professor in Chieri, Italy, 1958-1961; professor and later rector at the Biblical Institute in Rome, 1967-1978; and rector at Gregorian University from July 1978 until his December 1979 appointment to Milan.

Cardinal Martini became the first Jesuit in 35 years to head an Italian archdiocese when he was named archbishop of Milan. Pope John Paul II ordained him an archbishop Jan. 6, 1980, in St. Peter's Basilica.

The Archdiocese of Milan, with more than 5 million inhabitants and more than 1,100 parishes, has given the church two popes -- Pius XI and Paul VI -- in the last 83 years.

When Cardinal Martini took possession of his new archdiocese, he made a "walk of prayer" through the city, stopping several times to pray for the work of man, for the power of Christian love and for peace.

"Walking through the city, I can imagine so many sufferings behind the walls of the houses," he said. "But in so much sorrow I also see an immense core of generosity."

Cardinal Martini eventually came to be trusted enough that in 1984 a group of northern Italian terrorists turned over three suitcases full of weapons and ammunition to him, in an attempt to encourage mediation between their organization and Italian authorities.

Named to the College of Cardinals in 1983, he was immediately appointed to four different Vatican bodies instead of the one or two on which most new cardinals serve.

The widely traveled Cardinal Martini speaks French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and modern Greek in addition to his native Italian and the ancient languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

As president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences from 1986 to 1993, he played a major role in the 1991 Synod of Bishops for Europe, and he greatly expanded cooperative efforts with Protestant and Orthodox church bodies on the continent.

U.S. bishops have looked to him for guidance when, for example, he was named spiritual director of their 1986 spring meeting in Collegeville, Minn. In that role, he conducted a day of recollection on the first day and presented a series of reflections during morning prayers throughout the meeting.


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