Thousands mourn 'eternal pope in waiting'

Mon, Sep 3, 2012, 01:00

THOUSANDS OF people are expected to attend the funeral today in Milan of the Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, one of Italy’s best known and most respected Catholic thinkers. Over the last two days more than 100,000 people filed past his body, which was lying in state in Milan cathedral.

The former archbishop of Milan, who died on Friday at the age of 85, was probably best known outside Italy as the eternal pope in waiting, given that for many years during the papacy of John Paul II he was regularly tipped as his successor.

Martini was a towering figure of the Catholic Church, someone who could conduct a dialogue with believers and non-believers alike and who was never afraid to discuss publicly such controversial church issues as clerical sex abuse, clerical celibacy, homosexuality and the use of condoms in the fight against Aids.

As archbishop of Milan between 1979 and 2002 he achieved a rare standing for an Italian cardinal by becoming one of Europe’s most respected church leaders.

Seemingly distant from Holy See politicking, he was a powerful intellectual and an important biblical scholar who spent much of his retirement studying in Jerusalem.

Inevitably, the cardinal became an inspirational figure for many progressive Catholics who tended to see him as someone who best represented the reforming zeal of the second Vatican Council, a zeal they felt was stymied and slowed throughout the papacy of John Paul II.

John Paul II’s longevity eliminated any possibility of Martini’s succession. Even though he was still a charismatic figure at the cardinals’ conclave in 2005, he quickly ruled himself out of that contest on health grounds.

He had retired from the seat of Milan three years earlier, already suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Before his death in a Jesuit house in Gallarate, near Milan, he could move about only with a wheelchair, and was able to speak only with great difficulty.

In his last interview, conducted in early August but published last weekend by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Martini left us with some typically provocative thoughts.

“The church is 200 years out of date. Why does it not rouse itself? Or are we afraid? . . . In the wealthy West the church is tired,” he said.

“The church must admit its errors and go down the path of radical change, starting with the pope and bishops. The paedophile scandals oblige us to undergo a process of change.”