Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini: an archbishop of the people

Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, May 2005 (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano) Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, May 2005 (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano) 

Five years ago, Aug. 31, 2012, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., died at the Jesuit infirmary in Gallarate, near Milan. The Archdiocese of Milan mourned his passing—he had been their inspired and inspiring archbishop from 1980 until 2002. The church mourned the loss of a great leader. And I felt a personal loss for a man whose life and ministry had deeply affected mine.

I had first encountered Cardinal Martini from a distance at an event in Vienna in 1997; it was a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Peter Canisius. Our Chicago Province development office had asked if I could slip him an invitation to come to Chicago; I tried but could only pass it on to his secretary. That was the end of that invitation.


My next encounter was totally unplanned, though I like to think it was providential. In spring 2000 I went to Innsbruck, Austria to make a retreat directed by the novice master there. The best airfare was from Chicago to Milan, from which I took the easy train trip up to Innsbruck. After the retreat I spent some vacation days seeing historic sites in northeastern Italy—Ravenna, Loreto, Macerata—after which I returned to Milan. A Jesuit friend from Rome came up to meet me there, and we spent three days in the Jesuit community of San Fedele, just steps from Milan’s Duomo and its immense piazza.

After dinner in the Jesuit community, my friend and I went out to explore the city. I did not know Milan at all. We passed through the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which sits on the north side of the piazza. When we got out to the street, we saw that the piazza was completely barricaded, with police patrols guarding it. Surrounding the fencing was an immense crowd of mostly young people, thousands of them, excited, a bit restless but friendly and happy. We learned that this was a big liturgy, the Traditio Symboli, which takes place yearly on that night, the eve of Palm Sunday. Here the catechumens who are to be baptized at the Easter Vigil a week later gather for prayer and blessing; toward the end they receive the full creed, which they have learned in parts. At that point we trust them with the whole text. In Milan this liturgy has become a celebration of young people, who are now sharing their faith.

A quarter hour or so before the liturgy was to begin, cathedral staff opened the three pairs of huge bronze doors. Light flooded out from the cathedral, and the guards opened the barricades. The sight of thousands of young people running to get into church was indeed amazing. Light flooded out from the cathedral, and the guards opened the barricades. The sight of thousands of young people running to get into church was indeed amazing.

After the rush had eased up, my friend and I went in. The best we could do was find a place in the back to stand. This huge cathedral was teeming with 10,000 excited young people, almost tingling with anticipation. At the appointed time a bell rang and the procession of ministers began. Cardinal Martini was at the end of the procession.

The liturgy included readings and song, a homily and prayers. At the end, the catechumens approached the archbishop, who handed each one a decorative copy of the creed. Ushers then distributed copies to everyone in the cathedral. My friend and I went out onto the piazza to watch the end of the liturgy on large screens set up there, where there was also a crowd.

After this came a break in the program and a group went into the sanctuary and said something indicating their gratitude for Cardinal Martini’s 20 years of service to the archdiocese. They gave him a gift. He thanked them, and my friend said with surprise, “He’s smiling! He never smiles!” Final music began and the procession came down the aisle and out onto the steps of the cathedral. Cardinal Martini greeted the people waiting outside, who cheered for him some more. He then retired for the night.

I was totally astonished by the event. We hear about the loss of religion in traditional Catholic countries like Italy. We hear about the loss of faith among the young. So what had I just seen and heard? This was real. This was honest. Faith was very much alive there tonight. I decided right then and there that if I could arrange it, I would like to come back next year for that liturgy and for all of Holy Week.

I have gone back a number of times. I returned in 2001 and 2002 to experience the whole of Holy Week in the Ambrosian rite, which varies in details from the Roman liturgy and has a different feel to it—more upbeat, perhaps; not so much “look how awful we are” and more “look how great God’s love for us is.” And part of my search was to understand how this cardinal, a strong academic, professorial, impressive, but somewhat dry when he spoke, could be so effective with young Catholics, who responded to him like a rock star.

After the Traditio liturgy I walked to the Cadorna station, where trains connect central Milan with many suburbs. I approached a small group of young people who had been at the liturgy and asked if anyone there spoke English. A young woman volunteered to speak with me, and I posed the question: “What is it about Cardinal Martini that young people find so very attractive?” She translated my question for her friends, and after a couple of minutes of discussion she said to me, “He is authentic. We think he is authentic. When he says something, you know that he believes it, and you believe it too.” Her friends nodded, and I thanked her very much. And I never forgot.

“He is authentic. We think he is authentic. When he says something, you know that he believes it, and you believe it too.”

During a retreat in Jerusalem, where Cardinal Martini lived in retirement from 2002 to 2008, he told a group of Jesuits that when he was first archbishop of Milan, he used to sit on the steps of the cathedral and talk with groups of young people. At one point he grew concerned with all the young people who did not come to church and who were not talking with him, and he invited them to write to him and explain what they were looking for that they did not find in church. Churchgoers or not, the young people of Milan knew that he cared for them.

At a recent conference at Seattle University, a panel was discussing today’s Jesuit students and justice, and one speaker—making reference to the work of Charles Taylor—said that authenticity is a primary value for today’s students. No pretense, no phoniness, no masks.

The young people I talked with 15 years ago now have their own children, their careers, their dreams. And five years after his death, Carlo Maria Martini remains a presence in Milan. His grave in the cathedral there, which I visited again last April, draws a steady stream of visitors who come to pray and light candles and leave flowers. He continues to inspire and to encourage the people to be their authentic selves, to believe in themselves and to love and serve their neighbors. His work goes on.

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Henry George
1 year 4 months ago

Dear Fr. Schmidt, S.J.,

Thank you for your article.

However, I am puzzled why you flew from Chicago to Europe for
a retreat ? And flew there again and again in the following year.

What is it about the "Vow of Poverty" that you do not understand ?

Kevin Murphy
1 year 4 months ago

More hagiography from America. Predictable and rather dull.

Richard Murray
1 year 4 months ago

Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini was a true Prince of the Church. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Rome. He was leading a retreat of the young priests of his diocese to some early monastic sites. The priests of Milano have a great love for this amazing theologian and leader.
May he intercede for us from heaven!

Eugene Fitzpatrick
1 year 4 months ago

Fr. Schmidt:
I find your article about Cardinal Martini 'a good read' and feel that this is perhaps the highest compliment to give to a writer. It certainly was not predictible and not dull. Over in the 'hood, on Flatbush Avenue, if you ran into Me or George Carlin, we'd tell you that 'ya did good Farda'.

Richard Murray
1 year 4 months ago

Well said, Mr. Fitzpatrick. I was in Washington Heights, and we could have said, "Nice, Fatha," or, "Que bueno, Padre."

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