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.)  

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 1 month 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
5 years 1 month ago
*laughing*  Love it!
5 years 1 month 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
5 years 1 month ago
no laughing  from me.. I say back to Italians until we get a reformed Church.
Carlos Orozco
5 years 1 month 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
5 years 1 month 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."
5 years 1 month 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

It is astonishing to think that God would choose to enter the world this way: as a fragile newborn who could not even hold up his own head without help.
Ginny Kubitz MoyerOctober 20, 2017
Protestors rally to support Temporary Protected Status near the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Around 200,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans have been residing in the United States for more than 15 years under Temporary Protected Status. But that status is set to expire in early 2018.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 20, 2017
At the heart of Anne Frank’s life and witness is a hopeful faith in humanity.
Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J.October 20, 2017
Forensic police work on the main road in Bidnija, Malta, which leads to Daphne Caruana Galizias house, looking for evidence on the blast that killed the journalist as she was leaving her home, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Caruana Galizia, a harsh critic of Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat, and who reported extensively on corruption on Malta, was killed by a car bomb on Monday. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud)
Rarely does the death of a private citizen elicit a formal letter of condolence from the Pope.