Did a Piece of Wood Change Church History?

I’m happy that my friend Thomas J. Fitzpatrick, S.J., who told me this wonderful story a few years ago about the late Cardinal Carlo Martini, S.J., has allowed me to share it with you.  It’s edited only slightly from what he sent me today.  It's funny, provocative and touching at the same time, and speaks volumes about humility.  One regularly hears these kinds of stories told and retold, and described as “apocryphal,” but this one is not.

When I was superior of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem, I regularly drove Cardinal Martini, who was a member of our Jesuit community, to the airport when he traveled. Before the papal conclave in 2005, the papal nuncio in the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, prevailed upon the Cardinal to use the VIP services at Tel Aviv airport.  So the day before I drove him to the airport for the conclave, I informed airport security that I would be coming with Cardinal Martini.  We arrived the next morning about 4 AM, and were escorted to a private parlor in a building hidden from the rest of the airport.

Trips to the airport with Cardinal Martini were occasions for us for relaxed conversation, but this particular morning had a different aura to it. I was a bit in awe that a member of my community of which I was superior not only would be attending the conclave but was rumored to be one of the top favorites.  I knew that Cardinal Martini did not want to be Pope.  

So, partly joking, but also very seriously I said to him when he was summoned to be driven to the plane:  "Carlo, I know that you do not want to be Pope; I am your religious superior and as Jesuits we are supposed to obey superiors; let me tell you that if you are elected Pope, please accept."  We laughed; I hugged him and he went off to the conclave.

When Cardinal Martini returned from the conclave, I again drove to the special place to greet him upon his arrival.  After we got through all check points in the airport and were on the road to Jerusalem, I told him I was bit angry with him.  I had seen a lot of him on television reports about the conclave, and I saw that he was using his cane.  

So I said to him: "I know that you do not have to use your cane, and I think that you appeared with it to demonstrate to people how sick you are.  Am I correct?"  

"Yes," he said.

After that in the house in Jerusalem I would point to the Cardinal's cane and say: "Here is the piece of wood that changed the direction of the Catholic Church."

(Photo: Cardinal Martini, at the papal conclave in 2005, with cane.)  

Tim O'Leary
4 years 8 months ago
I hope this story is apocryphal. I agree with Amy that if it is true, it would reflect badly on Cardinal Martini's judgment and humility.

The last interview (if real) is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it just seems to raise the pastoral difficulties that are well known in the European Church without suggesting a viable solution that would be compatible with the faith. It is far easier to complain about the hard cases than come up with a solution that doesn't do more harm than good. 

The complaint that the Church is 200 years out-of-date is hard to interpret - was he being specific about the years (Napoleonic Europe), did he mean to suggest Vatican I and II were no big deal, etc.  I note that 200 years ago there were about 200 million Catholics worldwide, with the vast majority in Europe. Today Europe accounts for less than 20% of active Catholics worldwide, and the least successful continent in missionary terms. Maybe, we should be looking to non-Europeans for the future leadership of the New Evangelization. Also, I believe there are far more saints scattered throughout the Church than the Cardinal does. Still, his call for renewed commitment to the Scriptures and the Sacraments is definitely part of the new Evangelization.
Melody Evans
4 years 8 months ago
*laughing*  Love it!
KEN LOVASIK
4 years 8 months ago
Carlos (#3), It has never been an infallible teaching of the Church that the election of a Pope reveals the Will of God.  Even a cursory knowledge of the history of the Roman Church is proof enough that there have been more than a few men who sat on the throne of Peter who were obviously not of divine choosing.  Let's not be so quick to blame or credit God for choices made by human beings in a humanly fallible institutional Church.
ed gleason
4 years 8 months ago
no laughing  from me.. I say back to Italians until we get a reformed Church.
Carlos Orozco
4 years 8 months ago
A very interesting and teaching story.

However, answering the title of the artile, I don't think the Holy Spirit gets impressed by unnecessary canes. As I recall, it spoke rather clearly and swiftly back in 2005.
Amy Ho-Ohn
4 years 8 months ago
In 2005, virtually the entire College of Cardinals had been appointed by JPII. Martini was not "one of the top favorites."

This story illustrates the dangers of delusional narcissism, the likelihood that one will get so caught up in one's inflated self-image that one will end up saying or even doing ridiculous things. As the graffiti in a practice room I used to use put it, "Don't believe your own BS."
4 years 8 months ago
"A piece of wood." Did it change Church history? For sure it mot just changed, but also enhanced Church history with memory of a great, humble, Jesuit Cardinal Martini. That "piece of wood" deepened holiness within the Body of Christ edifying all who have eyes to see, ears to hear and heart to lovingly understand.

I can think of at least two other "pieces of wood" that not only  changed and enhanced Church history, but also human history - Eden's Tree and Calvary's Tree. "Wood" is good for "building" in many other ways than just houses!

God bless Cardinal Martini. Pray for us Your Eminence. The Church needs you more than ever!  

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The Affordable Care Act has changed our expectations for health care. It shifted the way we live, which may be shifting what we believe.
Michael RozierMay 25, 2017
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speak to the media about President Donald Trump's proposed fiscal 2018 federal budget in the Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The U.S. bishops have raised some serious concerns about what this proposal says about our national values.
The EditorsMay 25, 2017
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, accompanied by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., meets with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, following after a Republican policy luncheon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Congress is asking the nation to make “immoral choices,” said Sister Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association.
Kevin ClarkeMay 25, 2017
Philippine government soldiers walk past a mosque before their May 25 assault on Maute insurgents, who have taken over large parts of the town of Marawi. Residents started to evacuate Marawi after President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across the entire Muslim-majority region of Mindanao. (CNS photo/Romeo Ranoco, Reuters)
Gunmen claiming to have links with the Islamic State group threatened to kill hostages, including a Catholic priest, who were taken from the southern Philippine city of Marawi on May 23.