Italy‘s business capital of Milan ground almost to a halt on Monday as the people of the city – believers and non-believers alike – bid farewell to a beloved pastor, and perhaps too to the hope of a more liberal form of Catholicism that he embodied.
In a startlingly explicit interview published on Saturday, the day after his death, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini aimed a last and posthumous barb at the conservatives in his church, declaring that Roman Catholicism was “two hundred years behind [the times]”. He added: “Our rites and our customs are pompous.”
But the 85-year-old prelate could scarcely have been ushered to the grave with greater pomp than attended his funeral service in Milan’s many-spired Gothic Duomo. Italy’s prime minister, Mario Monti; the city’s mayor, Giuliano Pisapia, and endless ranks of cardinals, mitred archbishops and bishops took part in the Catholic church’s farewell to a man who had often been tipped to succeed the late John Paul II.
The tipping, though, was mostly done by progressive commentators, and – as the Polish pope named one conservative cardinal after another to the conclave that would choose his successor – Martini’s chances dwindled almost to nothing. The issue was put beyond doubt when the former archbishop of Milan contracted Parkinson’s disease: he entered the 2005 conclave with the aid of a cane, and his fellow-cardinals opted instead for Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope Benedict XVI.
Martini’s illness and the manner of his death also contributed to lively controversy after it became known that he had refused a feeding tube. Supporters of euthanasia claimed he had taken a way out forbidden by his own church – an interpretation fiercely contested by Martini’s fellow-cardinals. Elio Sgreccia, a former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said: “I and others, if we found ourselves in the same situation, should do as he did.”
In a clear criticism of the present pontiff, Martini said in his deathbed interview: “The church must admit its mistakes and take a radical path of change, starting with the pope and the bishops.” Martini admired Benedict’s intellect and acknowledged he had been influenced by the German’s writings.
But unlike the pope, Martini remained loyal to the spirit as well as the letter of the second Vatican council, the three-year church “summit” in the 1960s which appeared to have reconciled Roman Catholicism with the modern world. Over the years, he expressed approval for the ordination of women deacons, the use in some cases of condoms to prevent the spread of Aids and even the legalisation of abortion.
His tolerant, broad-minded approach won him devotees across an exceptionally wide arc of political and religious thinking. Among those who packed into the Duomo to pay their last respects were the radical and gay former communist governor of Puglia, Nichi Vendola, and the leader of Italy’s conservative Christian Democrats, Pier Ferdinando Casini.
Close by were to be found representatives of Islam, Judaism and Orthodox, Protestant and Coptic Christianity. Despite rain, thousands of people watched the service on giant screens set up outside the cathedral.
During the 22 years he was Milan’s archbishop, Martini forged an exceptional bond with the city and its inhabitants. Pisapia declared Monday an official day of morning and by the time the Duomo closed for the preparation of the funeral service, it was estimated that more than 150,000 people had filed past the late cardinal’s coffin.
As a reporter for the city’s biggest-selling newspaper, Corriere della Sera, remarked, not all of them believed in God “but they certainly believed in [Carlo Maria Martini]”.