Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan was one of the great churchmen of our age. If he had been in good health, he might have been a leading candidate for pope at the last conclave, the one that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
So, it is sad to read the interview he gave three weeks before his death on Aug. 31. In it, Martini talks about the Church being weary and that it has become ashes piled on top of burning coals. One might well pass over the interview in silence, if not for the attention heaped on the cardinal's quip, "The Church is 200 years behind."
In context in the interview, this comment appears as a throwaway line. Yet, Martini obviously intended it to mean something and it has drawn considerable attention since his death.
One might ask, "200 years behind what?" Two centuries ago, Europe was in the throes of the Napoleonic Wars. Surely, the cardinal did not mean the Church's thinking or acting of today is similar to the secular thinking or acting of 1812. That would be a most unlikely hypothesis.
In the context of the interview, Martini might have meant that the Church today has too much pomp and splendour, pomp reflective of the baroque era. Yet, in our Church in Western Canada, we see little pomp. It emerges only at major events, such as an ordination, the annual Chrism Mass or Easter Vigil.
But what does this "pomp" do? It raises our hearts to a realization of the Transcendent and stirs wonder at the marvels and greatness of God. This is not a negative.
However, this was not the spin people have given to Martini's comment. It has been interpreted more as the cardinal saying, "The Church has to accommodate itself to the modern (or post-modern) world."
But did Martini really mean that? He surely was not endorsing the individualistic morality, the dominance of economic thinking and mechanization of life that has created various forms of alienation, the decline of the family, the omnipotent power of state and corporation, and the disrespect for human life that plagues the Western world today.
Modernity is not the solution for the Church; it is the problem. If anything, we are too caught up in the modern spirit. The modern world is the Titanic which has already begun to go down. The Church would not be wise to climb aboard a sinking ship.
We would do better to emphasize our differences from modernity and post-modernity - that the Catholic faith links humanity to the Transcendent, that it offers eternal truth, that it is the ray of hope hovering above a sea of despair.
Then, 200 years into the future, given the grace of God, it would be no surprise to see the world again turn en masse to the Catholic faith and to worship with devotion Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.