Don’t believe what you’ve read about Cardinal Martini’s last interview

Cardinal Martini after celebrating his final Mass as Archbishop of Milan in 2002 (AP)

I have just been reading the Cardinal Martini interview in the original Italian. You can find it here. There are various English reports on the web about the substance of the interview, but all of them seem to focus on the headline-grabbing nature of the cardinal’s words, particularly his assertion that the Church is 200 years behind the times. But they miss what to me is the nub of what the cardinal has to say.

The cardinal starts off by lamenting the fact that churches and religious houses are empty. Well, we are all agreed on that – no one agrees more than Benedict XVI. This is not a good state of affairs. The cardinal then goes on to suggest three things that need to be done, and here too there is nothing particularly exceptional in what he has to say: we need to reform our sexual teaching, return to the Bible and return to the sacraments. The first of these may seem radical, but there is general agreement on this too. The sexual teaching of the Church is not getting across to the faithful, let alone to the population at large. It needs reform; but please let us remember that reform is not to be confused with abolition. Reform means a return to the roots, a reformulation of the eternal verities in a new and compelling way.

The cardinal mentions the plight of the divorced and remarried. Again, this is a problem that all recognise. But I would say, from my own perspective, that the problem is far deeper than that. Many of the children I encounter pastorally are children not of divorced and remarried parents, but of parents who have never been married. And that is a rather different thing. It is not people getting divorced that is the fundamental problem. Rather, it is people not wanting to get married in the first place.

But here is what the cardinal says, which we all need to hear:

Dove sono le singole persone piene di generosità come il buon samaritano? Che hanno fede come il centurione romano? Che sono entusiaste come Giovanni Battista? Che osano il nuovo come Paolo? Che sono fedeli come Maria di Magdala? Io consiglio al Papa e ai vescovi di cercare dodici persone fuori dalle righe per i posti direzionali. Uomini che siano vicini ai più poveri e che siano circondati da giovani e che sperimentino cose nuove. Abbiamo bisogno del confronto con uomini che ardono in modo che lo spirito possa diffondersi ovunque.

(“Where are the individuals full of generosity like the Good Samaritan? That have faith like the Roman centurion? That are enthusiastic like John the Baptist? That dare something new like Paul? That are faithful like Mary of Magdala? I advise the Pope and bishops to look for twelve persons out of the usual run of people for management posts. Men that might be close to the very poorest and that might be surrounded by young people and who might try something new. We need comparison with men who are ardent in such a way so that the Spirit can be poured out everywhere.”)

But what does this mean? I think it is a call to a radical religious revival, and it reminds me of the key scene in Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, where St Francis arrives at the papal court in the Lateran Basilica to ask recognition for his order. A cardinal leans over to the Pope, whose magnificence contrasts so strongly with the humility and poverty of Francis, and says something along the lines of: “This is the man who will lead the common people back to God.”

To say that we need a new St Francis, or a new Don Bosco, or a new Francis de Sales, is to get to the heart of the problem. But – and it is a huge but – we do have such people in the Church already, people who have led us back to basics and who have initiated strong currents of renewal.

As for the great ones of yesteryear, they are still with us, too. We need to rediscover our roots. The era of St Francis was a pretty dire one for the Church, but let us remember Pope Innocent III’s dream: he saw the Lateran Basilica, his cathedral, and the mother church of all churches in the world, tottering, and a little friar holding it up (as painted by Giotto). My guess is that this was Cardinal Martini’s dream as well, as well as that of Benedict XVI, and indeed of all of us who long for the renewal of the Church.