|One unmistakable sign
that a papacy is winding down comes when the figures that symbolize its
most lacerating debates leave the stage. The next few months are likely
to witness the exits of two such prelates: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini,
the archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Both are 74, one year short of the retirement
age for bishops. Both were named to their offices by John Paul II near
the beginning of his reign. Martini arrived in Milan in 1980. Ratzinger
took over at the former Holy Office in 1981.
Both are now clearly ready to move on. Ratzinger,
who incarnates the vigilant, restorationist theology that has dominated
John Paul’s pontificate, will finish his fourth five-year term in November.
Theoretically prefects of curial agencies are limited to two terms, but
the pope has twice asked Ratzinger to stay.
In recent months Ratzinger, who seems increasingly
fatigued, has distanced himself from day-to-day operations. He planned
to allow his lieutenants to handle a meeting with Jesuit theologian Fr.
Jacques Dupuis in September 2000, for example, and had to be persuaded
that he could not delegate such a sensitive responsibility.
Similarly, during the Milingo affair this summer,
it was Italian Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger’s No. 2, who called
the shots and who was quoted in the press. It felt at times like a handing
of the baton.
Most observers expect Ratzinger to retire to Bavaria
as soon after November as a successor is named.
Martini, meanwhile, has often expressed his desire
to go to Jerusalem when he reaches 75 in February 2002. The latest confirmation
came Sept. 8, when he presented his pastoral letter for 2001/2002 to the
“I have never made a mystery to the pope of my
desire to retire to Jerusalem to dedicate myself to prayer and to the study
of codexes and manuscripts,” said Martini, a noted Biblical scholar.
A Jesuit, Martini embodies the reformist spirit
of Catholic progressives. He has for two decades been the “great white
hope” of that constituency, the man most of them would elect to the papacy
if they had the chance.
Martini’s new pastoral letter reads like a farewell.
The Italian press was captivated by his apology
for not doing more to combat corruption in Milan in the early 1990s, when
revelations about one leading figure after another led cynics to dub the
city tangentopoli — “Bribe City.” The turmoil brought down not just
the government, but the entire political system that had dominated the
country since World War II.
Although Martini was never sullied by the scandals,
he wrote: “As much as I wanted to pronounce the Word … denouncing corruption
and the egoistic logic that sometimes dominated collective or group behavior,
I ask myself if I couldn’t have done more.”
For an Italy that seems to want to “forgive and
forget” — its current government is led by a man whose financial and political
origins remain obscure — Martini’s words are a salutary reminder
about work yet undone.
To non-Italian readers, I suspect two other points
from the letter will be most striking.
Martini apologizes to the so-called “new movements”
if they sometimes felt “little appreciated and sustained” by him. Though
he does not identify any movements by name, well-known examples include
Focolare, the Legionaries of Christ, and the Neocatechumenate.
Martini, like many diocesan bishops, has been
lukewarm about the movements despite heavy promotion from John Paul II,
worrying that they can be elitist and do little to build mainstream parish
“I have always rejoiced at authentic testimony
to the gospel, wherever it is found,” Martini wrote. “But I have also had
difficulty understanding some modes of thinking that seem to me particularistic
and self-referential.” Martini says he still feels a pastoral preference
for the diocese and the parishes.
“Yet the honesty of my intention is certainly
not enough to satisfy those who feel little cared for or loved,” Martini
wrote. He said he dreams that the movements and the parishes may unite
their gifts, but “the path still appears a long one.”
It is a generous nod across one of the larger
divides that have opened in the Catholic world under this pope.
In another characteristic flourish, Martini thanks
God for his encounters with non-believers.
“I have learned so much,” he wrote, “including
honesty, generosity, openness. For the paths of dialogue and friendship,
for reciprocal enrichment and for growth in light and in truth, for fruits
that grew on arid land, I give praise to my Lord.”
This is no idle statement. No Catholic leader
of his generation has done more to dialogue with the non-believing world.
Martini and famed Italian novelist (and atheist) Umberto Eco once published
an exchange of letters in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera,
now a book translated into several languages. It is a beautiful example
of two men with different philosophical points of departure who meet on
the terrain of mutual respect and deep concern for humanity.
Martini’s bottom line is unbridled optimism. “For
a believer there is no time for nostalgia, much less for regret,” he writes.
“It is always the hour for hope, for trust, for love.”
Ratzinger and Martini may or may not have written
the last chapters in their extraordinary careers. There are camps in the
church that would like to see both men as the next pope, and given that
John XXIII was just shy of 77 when he was elected in 1958, there is still
Whatever happens, the differing currents these
two ecclesiastical titans represent will certainly be in tension when the
next conclave happens. Ratzinger’s last major public document, Dominus
Iesus, offers a summary of his outlook. Despite the very different
genre, Martini’s pastoral letter now forms a fascinating term of comparison.
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