Cardinal Carlo M. MARTINI and Georg SPORSCHILL.  Night Conversations with Cardinal Martini, the relevance of the Church for tomorrow.  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012. Pp. 115. $15.95 pb.  ISBN 978-0-8091-4799-1.  Reviewed by Francis BERNA, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA 19141

Would Jesus treat the Catholic Church today as he did the Pharisees in his own day?  To this question Cardinal Martini says, “Yes.”  He further explains that Jesus would “not so much criticize those in authority as to show them how much hard work still needs to be done” (p. 20).  Martini believes that Jesus would give courage for those who truly wished to be his disciples; courage to move beyond the fear that too often keeps the church from doing the work that needs to be done.

The late Cardinal displays the kind of courage the church needs for today.  And, while he focuses on the relevance of the church for young people, his perspectives breathe an air of great hope for everyone in the church who wonders whether or not the church has a credible word to speak to the world.  Sporschill and Martini formulate the questions and the Cardinal’s responses out of a series of conversations between these two Jesuits as well as their talks with the street children to whom Sporschill ministers.

Later chapters address the popular challenges to the church – sexuality, women, birth control, abuse, and authority.  Martini provides no easy answers.  Instead he follows the fundamental principles established in the earlier chapters.  The first of these is to start with human experience.  The second principle holds that one will find God in this human experience.  The Ignatian spirituality of the Exercises permeates all of his reflections.  Human beings do know God and can draw close to God.  Instead of merely providing answers, the Cardinal proposes that the church be a companion for the young as they search.  He rightly notes, “Answers fall on fertile ground only when the question is already on the table” (pp. 96-97). Conversation, like that of the director and retreatant, constitutes the third principle.

Getting the question to the table requires trust.  The questioner must know that they are trusted, valued, and respected – that their experience counts.  And so, on topics related to sexuality, Martini challenges the church to be attentive to the needs of people in love.  He suggests that while the church often expends great energy in preaching the sixth commandment, and a variety of vices and sins under its heading, too often the church says too little about the value of loving relationships.  And, seldom does the official church really listen to the experience of the people in these relationships.

Following his own conviction, the Cardinal offers no detailed plan to ensure the relevance of the church for the future.  He notes, “It doesn’t work when a bishop starts out with his own view and implements it” (p. 110).  No, the Christian embraces that unknown future with a courage that comes from faith.  Age and wisdom have shaped Martini’s prayer from seeking practical answers from God to holding fast to a conviction that “God will not leave me” in difficult times.  The church need not be afraid of questions or disagreement.  The church should really fear that the young will not be interested enough or care enough to question; that they will relegate the church to complete irrelevance.  This the church should fear because so many of the young are doing the work that needs to be done – the work of justice.  In this work, as Martini professes, they are finding God, and are on their way to God.

The back cover of this book notes that Cardinal Martini was once considered “worthy of being elected pope.”  The editor proposes that the text “offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the church might have been like had he occupied the chair of Peter.”  Rather than imagining or dreaming, however, the reader will hopefully find in the text the passion to “open the door to a courageous and credible church” that Sporschill found in the conversations.  And, one may find something of Martini’s courageous faith now lived through another Jesuit who is named Francis.