ROME – Late August this year brought so much Vatican drama in the present, with a consistory and a high-profile meeting of cardinals, that something that happened in the same time frame a decade ago was all but forgotten.
Yet Aug. 31 was also the 10-year anniversary of a Catholic milestone that spanned the late 20th and early 21st centuries, because it was on that date that Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan died at the age of 85.
Martini was a Catholic titan of his time, arguably at his peak the most talked-about and influential figure in the church other than the pope. In many ways, he kept the Pope Francis vision of Catholicism alive for decades, awaiting a pontiff to make it real.
Over the years Martini served as a virtual ombudsman for the Catholic Church, fielding complaints from disgruntled faithful, especially those whose instincts veered more to the left, and giving them voice. Just days before his death, Martini recorded an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in which he famously declared that the Catholic Church is “200 years behind the times.”
“Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous,” he said. “The church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation.”
As it turns out, of course, Martini died not 200 years but just seven short months before at least some of his hopes would be realized by his fellow Jesuit, Francis, whom he first met in 1974 during a general chapter of the Society of Jesus.
Perhaps the most interesting commentary on the anniversary of Martini’s death came from his 88-year-old sister, Maria Stefania Martini, nicknamed “Maris” – who, speaking of nicknames, revealed that in the family Martini was known as “Carluccio,” using a suffix that roughly translates as “dear little Charley.”
Asked what kind of a brother the late cardinal had been, Maris recalled that growing up in Turin he would bring her friends over to the house on his bicycle and organize games for them. His main concern, she said, was that “nobody felt left out.”
Unsurprisingly, she said Martini was an A student at school and the kind of kid who, among other things, frowned on the practice of copying somebody else’s homework. Her oldest brother, she said, would sometimes get frustrated and yell at him, “You’re a goody two-shoes! They’re going to make you pope.”
As fate would have it, the name of that elder brother was “Francis.”
One understands the reaction: According to Maris, the future cardinal once brought home a copy of the pre-Vatican II “Index of Prohibited Books” and went through the family library, tossing books on the list into the nearby Po River – including, apparently, a cherished family volume by Balzac.
Obviously, Martini’s ecclesiology underwent some mutations over the years to follow.
Despite persistent rumors in 2005 that Martini might be a candidate for the papacy after the long reign of St. John Paul II, Maris said he did everything in his power to discourage such an outcome.
“Do you remember the funeral?” she asked. “He came in limping, supporting himself with a gnarled cane. I’d never seen him use one like it in his entire life. He sat down in the piazza and put the cane in front of him, showing it off to the TV cameras every chance he got. It was his way of saying: ‘Don’t vote for me,’” she said.
In fact, she said, her late brother actually supported the candidacy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.
“They had different ideas,” she said, “but he considered [Ratzinger] the right man for the church in that moment.”
As for John Paul II, Maris said her brother was never as close to the Polish pope as he was to Paul VI, even if it was John Paul who assigned Martini to Milan and made him a cardinal. It wasn’t just that Martini was more progressive, she said, but also a question of background.
The Martinis, she explained, were a high middle-class family, and so when Martini once had the occasion to introduce them to John Paul, they brought along their former nanny along with her daughter. Martini presented them using the Italian word for nanny, balia, which John Paul, apparently, had never had occasion to learn, so the daughter had to explain she was a “woman of service.”
In general, Maris said, her brother was not a big fan of the Vatican.
“Carluccio didn’t love the Vatican, it made him suffocate,” she said. “The ceremonies annoyed him, the formalisms bothered him. When he had to put on the red socks of a cardinal, he snorted.”
Even in death, she said, that instinctive aversion to pomp was still there.
“I remember a horrible Peruvian fleece blanket that a nun had put on top of him, maybe thinking she would cut it up and spread around the pieces as relics” she said, speaking of his final days. “I would have preferred a simple white sheet and a soft pillow, like the one my mom once brought him while he was in seminary.”
If nothing else, this rare glimpse into the private life of an extraordinarily public figure is a reminder of two points.
First, politics aren’t everything, and often they’re far from the most important thing. After all, the liberal lion Martini, according to his own sister, supported the election of the archconservative Ratzinger in 2005.
Second, people are conditioned by many factors, and perhaps especially by their families. Maybe the compassion and concern for the alienated that drove Martini as a churchman was, in some way, a reflection of the patient love he so obviously experienced at home – including from a sister who, all these years later, is still determined to keep his memory alive.