VATICAN CITY – Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a rare liberal within the highly conservative Catholic Church hierarchy who was nevertheless considered a papal contender in the last conclave, died Friday. He was 85.
Martini, a Jesuit and former archbishop of the important archdiocese of Milan, had been battling Parkinson's disease for several years. His death at a Jesuit institute in Gallarate, near Varese, was announced by the Milan archdiocese, which said his condition had worsened Thursday evening.
Martini frequently voiced openness to discuss divisive issues for the church, such as priestly celibacy, homosexuality and using condoms to fight HIV transmission. While not at odds with church teaching, his views nevertheless showed his progressive bent. He was an intellectual and a noted biblical scholar, yet he had a warm and personable style and seemed to connect with his flock like few high-ranking prelates.
And, despite his liberal views in a College of Cardinals that grew increasingly conservative under Pope John Paul II, he was considered "papabile," or having the qualities of a pope, going into the 2005 conclave that brought the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to the papacy.
Benedict was told Thursday that Martini's death was near, and on Friday issued a heartfelt letter of condolence, praising his "dear brother" for serving the church generously and faithfully for so long. He cited Martini's tenure as rector of the Jesuit's Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and of the Pontifical Biblical Institute as well as his "diligent and sage" leadership of Milan's Catholic faithful.
Martini was well known and well-liked by Italians, many of whom got to know him by his frequent contributions to leading daily Corriere della Sera, which for three years ran a popular column "Letters to Cardinal Martini," in which Martini would respond directly to questions submitted by readers.
The topics covered everything from the clerical sex abuse scandal to whether it was morally acceptable for a Catholic to be cremated ("it's possible and allowed," he wrote). His responses were filled with Biblical citations and references to church teachings, but were accessible as well, written as if he were chatting with his readers rather than preaching to them.
Martini also wasn't afraid to discuss issues that, while important to many lay Catholics, are usually considered off-limits by his colleagues.
In 2006, he raised eyebrows at the Vatican when he told the Italian weekly L'Espresso that condoms could be considered a "lesser evil" in combating AIDS, particularly for a married couple. While somewhat revolutionary at the time, his views seem to have struck a chord: Four years later, Benedict himself came close to echoing Martini's sentiment when he said a male prostitute who intends to use a condom might be taking a step toward a more responsible sexuality because he was looking out for the welfare of his partner.
In 2009, Martini insisted he was misquoted by a German publication as calling for a re-evaluation of priestly celibacy as a means to combat pedophilia among priests.
But he returned to the topic of priestly celibacy earlier this year — as well as a host of other thorny issues like artificial procreation, embryo donation and euthanasia — in his last book "Believe and Know," a conversation with a left-leaning Italian politician and doctor who had been his same interviewer for the 2006 Espresso article.
As a result of his openness to discussing sensitive issues, liberal Catholics had pinned their hopes on Martini going into the 2005 conclave, and some reports in the Italian media said he had received significant votes in the initial rounds of balloting.
But according to the most detailed account of the conclave to emerge — that of a purported diary kept by an unnamed cardinal — Martini was never really in the running. Instead, Ratzinger's main challenger was another conservative, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio.
Martini retired as Milan archbishop in 2002 and moved to Jerusalem to devote himself to prayer and study. He had long established relations with the Jewish community, writing books and articles on the relations between Christianity and Judaism.
"Without a sincere feeling for the Jewish world, and a direct experience of it, one cannot fully understand Christianity," he wrote in the book "Christianity and Judaism: A Historical and Theological Overview." ''Jesus is fully Jewish, the apostles are Jewish, and one cannot doubt their attachment to the traditions of their forefathers."
Born on Feb. 15, 1927, in Turin, Martini was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus in 1952. After terms as rector at the Gregorian and Biblical Institute, he was named archbishop of Milan in 1979 and held the post until his retirement in 2002; within that time he was also head of the European Bishops' Conference for six years, until 1993.
In a statement Friday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi paid tribute to his fellow Jesuit, saying his style as a pastor set him apart. He quoted Martini as writing in his book "The Bishop" that a bishop can't guide his flock with decrees and prohibitions alone.
"Instead point to the interior formation, on the love and fascination with the Sacred Scripture, present the positive reasons for what we do according to the Gospel," Martini wrote. "You will obtain much more than with rigid calls to observe norms."
Despite his desire to spend his final years in Jerusalem, Martini returned to Italy a few years ago as his Parkinson's worsened. By the end, he was wheelchair bound and could barely speak.
In June, he announced he could no longer continue with his Corriere della Sera Q&A column.
"The time has come in which age and sickness have given me a clear signal that it's time to resign from earthly things and prepare for the next coming of the Kingdom," he wrote his readers. "I assure you of my prayers for all the questions that went unanswered."
A funeral was scheduled for Monday in Milan's cathedral, where bells tolled on Friday afternoon upon word of Martini's death.
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