Category Archives: Church history

New Wine-skins


Friday August 31, 2012, Cardinal Carlos Martini, Archbishop of Milan for 22 years, died aged 85.  He was a man of immense ability, and at one time was thought likely to become Pope after Pope John Paul II.  But he suffered from the same illness as Pope John Paul II, and retired in 2002.

On August 8th this year he was interviewed by fellow-Jesuit Father Georg Sporschill.  The interview was meant to last about ten minutes, but it went on for two hours (The Tablet 9/8/12 p.27).  The interview was published on September 1, 2012, in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.  An English version was published in The Tablet of September 8,2012.

In the course of the interview Cardinal Martini said some surprising things.  He said that the Catholic Church is 200 years behind the times.  In Europe our churches are big and empty; our rituals and dress are pompous, and our administration becomes more and more bureaucratic.  He said the Church is in need of conversion, of healing and a return to the word of God.

On September 7th, one week after Cardinal Martini’s death, the gospel of the daily Mass was Saint Luke’s version of the parable about the new wine and the old wine-skins.  I took the opportunity to speak to the people about Cardinal Martini, and his call for the Church to update herself to meet the needs of the people of the 21st century.

At the beginning of the Church, just after Pentecost, the small community led by Peter and the apostles seemed to think they could fulfill their mission while remaining within the structures of the Jewish religion.  They soon realized that the words of Our Lord were prophetic, “No one pours new wine into old wine skins.  Otherwise the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined.  Rather new wine must be poured into fresh wine skins” (Luke 5, 37-38).  The mission of Christ entrusted to them could not find a home in the structures of the Jewish religion.  It must develop its own structures.

For more than two centuries these structures were the very simplest.  Rejected by the Jewish leaders, and under fierce persecution by the Roman empire, the young Church had to struggle for its very existence.  Then in the year 312 of the Christian Era, the persecutions ceased, and the Emperor Constantine granted legal freedom to the Christian religion in the Roman Empire.

The Church was now in a position to organize itself and develop its own structures.  At that time the Roman Empire seemed very successful, and the Church leaders chose the Roman form of government as their model.  So in our Church we have the words like Basilica (borrowed from the Greco-Roman Basilike or Palace/Offices).  We have the term holy orders (borrowed from the Roman word ordo which meant the civil administration service).  We even got the word diocese from the Church’s great persecutor, the Emperor Diocletian, whose name was used to coin the word dioceses for the 12 new administrative units which he created.

Unfortunately the Church did not adopt just the terminology of the Roman government, but also their commanding style of leadership.  This was a far cry from the model given by Our Lord himself when he told the apostles: “The kings of the gentiles lord it over them . . . but it shall not be so among you.  Rather let the greatest among you be the youngest, and the leader as the servant.  For who is greater, the one seated at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one seated at the table?  Yet I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22, 25-27)

That imperial style of leadership in the Church was compounded through time, and by the Middle Ages the bishops of the Church were also civil rulers of the territories entrusted to them.  They were not just Church officials but also princes of the realm, and they dressed and acted as such.  Even to this day the purple robes of our bishops and cardinals have more to do with their former role as princes than with their vocation to serve and guide the People of God.

So Cardinal Martini shortly before his death could lament pomposity in the Church as a sad expression of what we have become.  Perhaps his gentle words of criticism would have been more effective if he had spoken them 10 or 20 years earlier.  Better still if he had actually introduced some new structures in his diocese to express the post Vatican II awareness that all Catholics by their very Baptism are called to play an active part in the running of their Church.

One such structure could be a diocesan Council of lay people to whom the bishop would give a monthly account of happenings in the diocese.  If such Councils had been receiving monthly reports over the past 20 or 30 years, they would have confronted the clerical sex abuse scandal promptly as it emerged, and not have allowed it to become such a damaging crisis. Some bishops may claim that they are accountable only to God, but a wise bishop like Cardinal Martini would accept that as servant of his people he is accountable to them too.

Cardinal Martini’s final challenging interview gives the Church an opportunity to stop and assess what we are doing.  At the moment there seems to be a firm policy to centralize power in the Church, and try to pour the new wine of Vatican II into the old wine-skins of Vatican I or earlier.

It has been said that the Vatican II Council finally gave the Catholic lay people their rightful place in the life and mission of their Church.  It is imperative that the whole Church develop suitable structures to give expression and outlet to this new energy.  Failure to provide new wine-skins for Catholic lay participation in Church government will mean new energy lost for want of an outlet, and old energy deprived of the talent and initiative it so badly needs.