Book review: Carlo Maria Martini is one of the most respected figures in the Catholic Church. In his book "Towards Jerusalem", he says he does not divide the world into believers and non-believers, but into those who think and those who don't

Carlo Maria Martini (photo: Pelican)

This city is cardinal to him

PUBLISHED IN |  Jun 3, 05

“Likrat yerushalayim: Masa el shoresheha hayehudi’im shel hanatzrut” (“Verso Gerusalemme”) by Carlo Maria Martini, translated from the Italian by Dov Ancona, Carmel, 189 pages, NIS 78

It’s not every day that a cardinal publishes a book in Hebrew. Carlo Maria Martini’s “Verso Gerusalemme,” which came out in Italian in 2002 and has been translated now into Hebrew, is the first such book. Furthermore, the author is not just any cardinal. Martini is one of the most respected figures in the Catholic Church today. In recent years, he has been the leader of the so-called “progressive” faction, as opposed to the “conservative” wing headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI.

For many years, Martini was at the top of the “papabili” – potential pope – list. At the last papal conclave, a little more than a month ago, Martini did not consider himself a likely candidate on account of his age (78) and poor health. But opponents of Cardinal Ratzinger and those on the lookout for a more “open-minded” pope rallied around him and hailed him as their leader. Martini favors delegating more power to Catholic communities around the world rather than concentrating it all in Rome. He would like to see bishops involved in decision-making in the Church and the pope consulting with them. He believes the time has come to reexamine the role of women in the Church and the dwindling number of men joining the priesthood. In the end, however, Martini supported Ratzinger and gave him his blessing.

Martini, former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University – considered the top academic religious institution in Rome – and archbishop emeritus of Milan, the largest archdiocese in Europe and one of the most important in the entire Catholic world, retired at the age of 75 and moved to Jerusalem. “And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit until Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there,” says Martini, quoting Paul in the New Testament (Acts 20:22).

But why did he come to Jerusalem? What is Jerusalem to him?

On a fundamental, Christian religious level, this act of pilgrimage is not surprising. Wherever Martini turns in this city – to the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane – he is walking in the footsteps of Jesus. One can only imagine the excitement that seizes him, a devout Catholic, as he stands at the foot of Jesus’ burial place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City.

But Martini’s Jerusalem is more than a geographical place. It is closer to the French concept of “lieu,” a spiritual, psychological and metaphysical place. Most of all, Jerusalem – celestial and terrestrial – is a symbol of the discordant soul of man and the endless trials and tribulations faced by humanity.

Martini gives a lot of thought to cities in this book. “In my childhood, the city was an indisputable fact of life (like having parents or an older brother). The city was there … with all the turmoil, the bustling streets, the narrow spaces, the overcrowding. It never occurred to me that anyone might be bothered by it. The rumbling of the trolley was like the chirping of birds to someone who lives in the country.”

The onset of fear, pain and despondency began when he was a bishop in Milan. “I remember sitting in a car and watching the houses come at me, one by one. Inside the houses, behind the curtains on the windows, were illuminated rooms filled with people. Each house came with its own heavy load: quarrels, frustration, illness, death.”

Shared crudity

Lot fleeing Sodom, Peter Paul Rubens

Lot fleeing Sodom, Peter Paul Rubens

As Martini compares human life and life in a city, the conclusion one reaches is that a city’s crudity is the crudity of life. “Anyone who looks carefully and objectively at the problems that preoccupy people will see that solving them is beyond the realm of human ability. Only those who delude themselves or whittle down their activity to small, measurable goals think they can cope with the complexities of life in a metropolis.”

The city equals life, symbolizing human civilization as a whole. But what kind of city is Jerusalem that it exerts such a powerful pull on Martini? Certainly nothing like Babylon, Sodom or Jericho, biblical archetypes symbolizing violence, arrogance and fear, which “take different forms from city to city.” And yet “the winds of Babylon, Sodom and Jericho blow between the walls of Jerusalem, whipping up a violent storm” – then as now.

At the same time Jerusalem is also an alternative to Babylon, a symbol of the good in man. “Confining, blinding, but always pulsating with life. Jerusalem has always been a city of courage,” writes Martini. Its pain is the pain of the crucified, the pain of man battling the crudity within and around him, the pain of humanity. When Jerusalem is redeemed, becoming a central meeting place as described in the Revelation of St. John, both man and the world will be redeemed.

A pilgrimage to Jerusalem is meant to bring us closer to celestial Jerusalem, to move us toward a new spiritual and moral order. The peace of Jerusalem “radiates to other cities,” bringing peace to the human soul. It is a journey, says Martini, not a miraculous shortcut, but it helps us discover the wholeness of our lives and understand what we need to do to triumph over evil and extract the good from the bad. It is here in earthly Jerusalem that Martini is able to get a sense of heavenly Jerusalem and come closer to it, but without forgetting that there are two Jerusalems – physical and metaphysical.

Martini’s love for Jerusalem is not just bookish and philosophical. Certain events in his life have strengthened his ties to the city and Israel as a whole. Once he almost died here. It was back in 1959, when he joined the archaeological dig in ancient Givon. Bending over a pit, the sides caved in and he began to slip down. “Suddenly,” writes Martini, “a thought came to me, in a moment of revelation I have never experienced since: How good it is to die in this land!” The calmness that came over him is what saved him, he says.

Another time, he was almost born here. It was at the Pontifical Bible Institute in Jerusalem, near the Jaffa Gate. Martini went out on the balcony and looked heavenward. “Suddenly a kind of wild thought hit me: This is my birthplace. I was born here, in Jerusalem.”


The Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council

This love for Jerusalem has endeared the Jewish people to him – and perhaps it goes both ways. His Jewish friends call him a “philosemite.” Rabbi David Rosen, for example, writes in the introduction to this book that Cardinal Martini played an important role in the revolutionary changes in the policy of the Catholic Church toward Jews and Judaism since the early 1960s.

In the book itself, Martini also writes at length about the Jews and Judaism, calling for greater cooperation between the two religions. One example is his approach to the “people of God” – the Jews according to the Bible and Judaism, and the Church in the New Testament and Christianity.

This could be a source of friction and a pretext for envy and squabbling over the birthright. Martini rejects such bias in the historical chronicle of mankind. From his perspective, “the preeminence of Israel over the nations, the preeminence of Jesus over other men and the preeminence of the Church, have a purpose, which is the salvation of all.” The Jews and the Christians are God’s anointed, and serve humanity at large.

Martini believes there are a whole host of reasons why the Catholic Church should reach out to Judaism and learn more about it. “To understand itself, its nature and its role, the Church must explore its relationship with the Jewish people,” he writes. “Toward that end, we must understand how the Jews perceive themselves.” Without ignoring the differences between the religions, Martini maintains that the profound dispute between them “distances the Church from valuable resources and creates a serious imbalance in the Christian community.” Until today, he says, the Catholics have not found a way of resolving many problems connected to sex, family and fitting in as an individual in the modern world.

The book is laden with autobiographical data and historical facts about Jerusalem and the history of Jewish-Christian relations, as well as commentary on passages and events in the Bible and the New Testament. Martini distinguishes, for instance, between religion and faith. Faith is a private emotion, he writes, whereas religion is the historical, cultural, social and dogmatic articulation of a belief or set of beliefs. Ethnic factors can come into play here, for good or for bad. Martini’s preference becomes clear later on: “When religions cling to historical values, they forget the sublime truth upon which they are founded and are liable to become a source of conflict.”

Martini, however, does not divide the world into believers and non-believers, but into those who think and those who don’t. In general, he advises us to preserve a sense of humor, seeing that “we’re all in God’s hands, which is to say, good hands.”

This book is not always easy reading, especially for a secular Israeli unfamiliar with religious terminology, Jewish or Christian. But it may inspire the reader to go back to the sources for another look, armed with the helpful commentary and footnotes provided here. “Many Jewish Israelis, whether they define themselves as religious or non-religious, know nothing about Christians,” writes Rosen in the introduction. “Even when they travel abroad, they perceive the people they meet as `non-Jews’ rather than Christians.”

This fascinating and important book provides an opportunity to change that.