Cardinal Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, died last August 31st at the age of 85 from the consequences of Parkinson’s disease. Before being sent to Milan as archbishop by Blessed John Paul II, Martini was a Jesuit priest, a revered biblical scholar, a professor at the Biblicum, and then the Rector Magnificus of the Gregorian University in Rome. I was fortunate enough to be a student at the “Greg” in the years when Martini was rector, and those were years of great intellectual fervor at the university under his leadership. When he stepped down from the archbishop’s chair in Milan, Martini went off to live in Jerusalem as a simple biblical scholar.
In the days before his death, he gave a last interview that was published in Corriere della Sera, the major newspaper of Milan, a city where Martini was truly beloved for his years of faithful servant leadership. (Fr. Joseph Komonchak provides a translation at dotCommonweal.) In the face of death, Martini was most honest, leaving a final testament for the Church that he loved.
“The Church is tired,” he said. “Our church buildings are huge, but our religious houses are empty and the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church increases. Our ceremonies and our vestments are pompous... Do these things really express what the Church is today? ... We are like the young rich man who went sadly away when Jesus called him to become his disciple. I know that we cannot give these things up easily. At least we should search for people who are free and closer to their neighbors, as were Bishop Romero and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador. Where are our heroes who can inspire us? For no reason, should we limit them with the chains of the institution.” (This and other quotes from the interview are my translation.)
In criticizing the Church that he loved, it was natural for Martini to think of his Jesuit colleagues at the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador killed by a right wing death squad funded by the wealthy establishment of El Salvador who feared the uprising of the poor. The Jesuit victims were the university rector Ignacio Ellacuría, and professors and priests, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Juan Ramón Moreno, Armando López, and Joaquín López y López. The right wing attackers even killed two witnesses, the caretaker’s wife and her daughter, so that they could escape unnoticed with their crime. The right wing El Salvadoran death squads’ trails of carnage also includes the blood of Maryknoll sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and a lay missionary Jean Donovan, and, as Cardinal Martini also mentioned, the Archbishop of San Salvador, the Servant of God, Oscar Romero. In addition to these Church victims, the death squads also murdered tens of thousands of poor El Salvadorans as well.
John Paul II and the then Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Ratzinger condemned the nascent liberation theology in Latin America and took strong steps to shut it down. While their motives are understandable, since they feared Marxism in its European version, and could not understand or accept a Christian version of it, this was a major misstep that ended up causing great harm to the Church. Whether they meant to or not, Wojtyla and Ratzinger were making a political choice. In preventing liberation theology, as preached by these martyrs, from reaching its full stage of development, they were keeping the Church aligned with the old power structures of Latin America. They might just as well have sent a telegram. These religious men and women, who in the name of the Gospels, stood with the poor, would not be defended by their Church. They were expendable, and they were murdered.
While these murders happened over twenty years ago, their repurcussions are still felt today, not only in Cardinal Martini’s last words, but in our own presidential election. The Republican candidate for President, Mitt Romney, got a large part of the initial investment to start Bain Capital from wealthy El Salvadorian clans that, beside funding Bain, also funded the right wing El Salvadoran death squads. It is unknown if any Bain profits went back to El Salvador through the hands of these investors to fund more murders of the poor, of priests and of nuns, but it is a question that needs to be answered. Certainly Bain paid these El Salvadoran “investors” many times over what they invested. The Church’s treatment of the El Salvadorian martyrs weighed heavily on Cardinal Martini’s mind in his last days. Who their murderers were and who was in business with them should weigh heavily on our minds as we consider how to vote this November.
Cardinal Martini went on in his last interview: “The word of God is simple, and it seeks a heart that listens. Neither the clergy nor church law can replace man’s internal judgment (l’interiorita` dell’ uomo). All the external rules, laws and dogmas are given to us to clarify our internal voice and our discernment of the spirit.” We are hearing a lot these days from some archbishops, bishops and priests about how a Catholic should vote in this coming presidential election. Cardinal Martini’s dying words are an antidote to this type of clericalism. The clergy and church law cannot override a Catholic’s prudential judgment about how to apply moral principles to concrete political situations. So get the facts, listen to what the Church authentically teaches, inform your conscience, and then vote for the candidate that you think will best bring about a just society. That is all the word of God seeks: a heart that listens, and not a heart that follows orders or even strong hierarchical suggestions on political issues. Neither the clergy nor church law can replace your own informed internal judgment.
Cardinal Martini continued, “Why do the sacraments exist? They are a means of healing. The sacraments are not a means of discipline, but a help for man on his life’s journey and in the weak moments of his life.” Exactly. There is another message here for the presidential election: the Eucharist is not a weapon. So when you hear the nonsense, as you surely will this election, that certain Catholic candidates should be denied the Eucharist, or that you cannot vote for someone and still approach the communion rail yourself, remember these thoughts of the great Cardinal Martini as he faced his God: ‘The sacraments are not a means of discipline.”
Nicholas P. Cafardi