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.)