Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, emeritus Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, died on Aug. 31 at the age of 85. You can read the New York Times obituary for him.
I want to mention some things that the NYTimes did not report. The first is a matter of important scholarship.
Since the nineteenth century, when thousands of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament were uncovered and studied, scholars and translators wanted a comprehensive edition that reflected the best possible reconstruction of the original texts. In 1954, the American Bible Society initiated a project to do just that, and they recruited five of the best New Testament textual scholars in the world.
Early in the project, the Jesuit Martini of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, probably the best Roman Catholic textual scholar, was invited to join the committee. This team produced what is unquestionably the definitive edition of the Greek text of the New Testament used by scholars, seminary students and translators around the world.
When Martini was appointed Archbishop of Milan, a number of university students approached him and said basically, “Look, you’re known as a Bible expert. We don’t know anything about the Bible, so what can you offer us?”
Without hesitation he said, “Meet me at the cathedral Thursday afternoon.” Hundreds showed up. The archbishop gave them all a photocopy of a page from the Bible and a pencil, and asked them all to quietly read the passage and underline words that they wanted to know more about or which seemed important to them. After a half hour, he then asked them about the words they’d underlined, probing their thoughts but adding his own.
The crowds of youth grew to over 15,000 on subsequent Thursdays, and soon Martini had spread the same process to other parishes in his diocese. Today, it is practiced widely in many other countries as well.
Martini combined his deep faith with a brilliant intellect.
At the initiative of a Milan newspaper, he entered into an exchange of correspondence with the philosopher, author and self-declared secularist Umberto Eco. When the letters were published as Belief or Nonbelief? A Confrontation, Harvard’s Harvey Cox wrote, “The Eco-Martini correspondence lifts the possibility of intelligent conversation on religion to a new level.”
Martini maintained his contact and friendship with the United Bible Societies. I found him warm, engaging, thoughtful and deeply committed to his faith. When I think of the enormity of his contribution to the universal church through his scholarship and his work with young people, I mourn the passing of a great man.
He would have made a great pope.