Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Martini at 80

Another papal elector's slot opened in the Sacred College last Thursday as the retired archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini SJ, marked his 80th birthday.

A simple priest when he was named to the chair of St Ambrose by John Paul II in 1979, over his years at the helm of Europe's largest diocese Martini acquired a reputation as the church's progressive lightning-rod, whether advocating a new ecumenical council or, as he did last year, opining that the use of condoms in cases of a partner infected with HIV/AIDS constituted a "lesser evil."

Sure, there are those who view Martini -- who, in accord with his fervent wishes, returned to Jerusalem on his retirement in 2002 -- as an incarnation of the Antichrist. But proving yet again that Joseph Ratzinger is a Pope his pre-electoral base won't listen to, said line of thought has been firmly repudiated by none other than Benedict XVI, himself.

(Given the similarity of phonetic, to say nothing of the identical politicized rhetoric worthy of the End of Days, it's an opportune moment to repeat our occasional public service announcement that, indeed, Archbishop Piero Marini is still Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations... and marks his 20th anniversary in the post this coming Saturday.)

Since his election, the sitting Pope has relied more heavily on few, if any, of his cardinals as a sounding board than Martini. The retired porporato has been received in audience by the pontiff with a frequency reserved for most dicastery heads, and on a visit to the Roman seminary at the weekend, Benedict revealed that he and Martini exchanged a very personal and very warm set of letters to mark the latter's milestone.

"We are of the same age," Benedict, who turns 80 on 16 April, mused.

As for the rest, NCR's John Allen explains it:
In truth, Martini has always been more traditional, and Ratzinger more modern, than the stereotypes might suggest. That they have differences on some important questions, however, is not in dispute.

Even in retirement, Martini continues in some ways to play the role of “loyal opposition”. Recently, Italy has been engulfed by a right-to-die debate that became the country’s equivalent of the Terry Schiavo case in the United States, when an advanced muscular dystrophy patient named Piergiorgio Welby asked to be removed from his respirator, and eventually died. Officially, the Catholic church was critical of the decision, and the pope’s Vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, denied permission for a church funeral. Martini, however, took a more permissive line, saying publicly that terminally ill patients should be given the right to refuse treatments and that the doctors who assist them should be protected by law....

Those expecting a dramatic schism between “Ratzinger-ites” and “Martini-ites” under Benedict XVI, however, so far have been grossly disappointed....

Another reminder of the point came on Saturday, when Benedict XVI held a meeting with seminarians at the Roman Seminary for the Feast of Our Lady of Confidence.

The pope was asked six questions by the seminarians, which had been submitted in advance and released to the press. They ranged from asking the pope to reflect on his own priestly formation, to his thoughts about how to avoid careerism in the priesthood. The fact that the questions were pre-arranged means that Benedict had plenty of time to craft his answers.

In the course of responding, the pope cited a number of sages, most prominently St. Augustine, who loomed so large in his own intellectual and spiritual formation, St. Ignatius, and St. Bakhita, the former Sudanese slave canonized by John Paul II in 2000.

The only living figure cited by the pope, however, was Martini.

“I don’t think I’m being indiscrete if I say that today I received a beautiful letter from Cardinal Martini,” Benedict said. “I had expressed best wishes for his 80th birthday – we’re the same age – and in thanking me, he wrote: ‘I’m grateful above all to the Lord for the gift of perseverance. Today,’ he writes, ‘even the good is done for the most part ad tempus, ad experimentum. Good, according to its essence, can only be done definitively; but in order to do it definitively, we need the grace of perseverance. I pray every day,’ he concludes, ‘so that the Lord will give me this grace.’”

The pope then quoted another line from Martini: “So far, the Lord has given me this grace of perseverance, and I hope that he will give it to me also for this last phase of my journey upon this earth.”