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The Biblical scholar and Jesuit priest Cardinal Martini died last Friday. A friend of the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he recently returned from his retirement in Jerusalem to Milan in the knowledge that he did not have long to live.

In the early part of August this year, he gave his final interview to fellow Jesuit, Father Georg Sporschill. The following is a report of what he said as reported in Catholic News Live:

“In what is described as his last interview, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said that the Catholic Church is 200 years behind the times and, citing the sex abuse scandals,  called for it to recognize its mistakes and embark on a path of change.

Cardinal Martini, who died Friday at the age of 85, had been interviewed Aug. 8.  Corriere della Sera today published the interview [here in PDF: L’ultima intervista].

Cardinal Martini called the church in Europe and America “tired” and, as Reuters reported, continued:  “Our culture has aged, our churches are big  and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our  cassocks are pompous.”  He later added, “The Church has remained 200 years behind the times. Why has it not been shaken up? Are we scared? Fear instead of courage?”

To overcome its fatigue,  the Church must admit its mistakes and make radical changes, the cardinal said, adding that the sex abuse scandals require a journey of conversion and transformation. Sacraments should be a healing tool, and “not a tool for discipline.” In the end, he said, only love can overcome the distrust of the church that he has seen in Europe. And only love will conquer the fatigue that besets the church.”

When I attend Sunday Mass here in the UK, I have to say, I tend to agree with the late Cardinal. Churches are practically empty most of the week and those who do attend Mass tend to be middle aged and grey haired. Our local Catholic high school has some 700 pupils, not all are Catholic but across the county less I would suggest fewer than 15% are regularly seen at Mass.

The Year of Faith which starts next month is very unlikely to reach out to those who are divorced and those living in complex family situations or even those who find Church plain boring. Cardinal Martini is right, the Church has to modernise and re-discover its original mission. We have to ‘be doers of the word, and not hearers only’ (James 1:22) and perhaps leave the traditions of our elders in order to ensure that we spread the gospel through our actions: visiting the sick, feeding the hungry and clothing the poor.

Cardinal Martini was a good and thoughtful man, who was prepared to challenge the Church. He is deserving of our prayers. May he rest in peace.

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