A great Christian

An interview with Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints: «A limpid priestly figure is being beatified, who offered all of himself to Jesus and to His Church, who suffered for that, a figure that has been guide and comfort for so many Christians who came after him»

Interview with Cardinal José Saraiva Martins by Gianni Cardinale


The Church of San Marco in Rovereto where Rosmini was baptized on 25 March 1797. Rosmini was parish priest from 1834 to 1835 of this church, in which, in September 1823, he spoke the Panegyric to the holy and glorious memory of Pius VIII
      «I am really content that Antonio Rosmini is finally being raised to the glory of the altars. I am content for the Church and, if I may permit myself, personally also. From the time I was professor at the Pontifical Urbanian University, I have always quoted with pleasure the enlightened writings of this great, acute, prophetic thinker». Cardinal José Saraiva Martins is already preparing with great care the homily he will give in November in Novara, when he will preside over the ceremony in which the great priest from Rovereto will be enrolled in the album of the Blessed. And he does not hide his particular satisfaction that this ecclesial appointment has finally come round. Not least because it doesn’t happen every day that a cleric who has had some of his affirmations formally condemned by the Holy Office receives such ample rehabilitation.
      Your Eminence, why do you seem so glad at being able to preside at the beatification of Rosmini?
      JOSÉ SARAIVA MARTINS: Because he was a limpid priestly figure who offered all of himself to Jesus and to His Church, who suffered for that, a figure that has been guide and comfort for so many Christians who came after him. Christians belonging to the intellectual class, because Rosmini was a great thinker, but also ordinary believers who have been touched by the witness of the male and female religious of the Congregations founded by the Abbot from Rovereto. Rosmini was truly a Christian who lived the human and Christian virtues in the loftiest way.
      Yet for Rosmini it was not easy to get those virtues recognized…
      SARAIVA MARTINS: In effect, the cause of beatification – I imagine you are referring to that – was particularly complex. For a variety of reasons.
      Doctrinal reasons above all.
      SARAIVA MARTINS: In effect, Rosmini’s writings were subject to criticisms from other churchmen, criticisms that culminated in the Post obitum decree, of the then Holy Office, in which forty clauses taken from his works were condemned. But it was a posthumous sentence, following his death – post obitum as said – and hence Rosmini could not defend himself, and then they were clauses taken out of context and interpreted in arbitrary fashion.
      The Jesuits are among the historic “enemies” of Rosmini…
      SARAIVA MARTINS: Some figures in the Society of Jesus of the period. But for a long time now the Jesuits have changed opinion. Their Provost General, Kolvenbach, wrote an article in the magazine Filosofia oggi [Philosophy today] (f. IV/ 1997) in which Rosmini is spoken of as a prophet of the third millennium. In the article Kolvenbach says: «During his lifetime some Jesuits, they themselves, to tell the truth, not “outstanding”, published attacks on him… It is worth remembering that those Jesuits, outside the rule of obedience, were reproved by the Provost General, the Reverend Father Jan Roothaan». Then, years ago, La Civiltà Cattolica found room for an article “in reparation” by the late lamented Rosminian Bishop Clemente Riva. A very unusual fact given that the fortnightly only publishes articles signed by Jesuit fathers.
      Father Cornelio Fabro, an unrepentant critic of Rosmini, wrote that the Jesuits’ change of mind is due to an «exaggerated guilt complex».
      SARAIVA MARTINS: It’s true that the late lamented Father Fabro held to his negative judgment on Rosmini. A respectable judgment but by now shared by extremely few.
      It’s a fact, in any case, that the Post obitum decree has been withdrawn in the end.
      SARAIVA MARTINS: In effect, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, led by Cardinal Ratzinger, studied the Rosmini question again and in the end established that, despite the Post obitum decree, nothing stood in the way of his beatification.
      Another aspect that hampered Rosmini’s cause was political, his activism in favor of the political unity of Italy and his aversion, for Austrian dominion, an aversion they returned …
      SARAIVA MARTINS: Political ideas and opinions are not per se determinant for beatification. It’s a fact that the Church has already raised to the glory of the altars the Pope, Pius IX, who also, precisely in the political sphere, after an initial understanding, had opinions divergent from Rosmini’s. What one can say is that the history afterward took the line that Rosmini had in some way imagined.

In the Positio prepared by Father Papa there is mention of some evidence that would lead one to think there were several attempts to poison Rosmini. Irrefutable evidence of the matter is lacking, however. But it doesn't surprise one that the Abbot might have been the target of attempts at physical elimination

      The relation with Pius IX is a remarkable aspect of Rosmini’s life. It seems that at first Pope Mastai wanted to create him cardinal, then instead the arrangement must have been broken…
      SARAIVA MARTINS: In effect, there is evidence to show that Pius IX had great esteem for Rosmini, that he wanted to create him cardinal and even appoint him his Secretary of State. But then came the political disturbances and the creation of the Roman Republic in 1849 that buried the possibility. As some scholars have shown, the enmity and antipathy of cardinals closer to Austria, beginning with the influential Giacomo Antonelli, worked against Rosmini.
      What, more in general, has been the attitude of the various pontiffs towards the figure of Rosmini?
      SARAIVA MARTINS: In general of great esteem. The Positio quoted many documents and testimonies in that respect. Among them let me recall the words pronounced in his time by Paul VI in various speeches and the fact that John Paul II quoted him positively in the Fides et ratio encyclical. Singular, then, the relation with John Paul I.
      In what sense?
      SARAIVA MARTINS: The servant of God Albino Luciani wrote, as young priest, a very critical thesis on Rosmini and the person who answered him was a young Rosminian, Father Clemente Riva, later auxiliary of Rome. In 1978, when Luciani became Pope, he wanted to meet the cardinal vicar and his auxiliaries. When Riva’s turn came, John Paul I said to Poletti: «Him, I know…». But he did it with a wide smile. So Monsignor Riva – he recounted it himself – who had had some apprehension about the meeting, felt very relieved. To that needs to be added that there is reliable evidence that Pope Luciani expressed the hope of rehabilitating Rosmini’s reputation personally.
      Rosmini’s best known work is certainly The Five Wounds of the Holy Church. Put on the Index, it was fully rehabilitated before the Index of forbidden books was itself abolished…
      SARAIVA MARTINS: It’s a book in some ways prophetic, anticipatory, perhaps too much so for its times. And the destiny of prophets, in the Bible but also, alas, in the history of the Church, is often that of being misunderstood and persecuted.
      One of the five wounds pointed out by Rosmini it is that of episcopal nominations…
      SARAIVA MARTINS: Episcopal nominations are always a very delicate point in the life of the Church. I’m aware of it also as member, for years, of the Congregation for the Bishops. Rosmini wanted to eradicate the influence by then deleterious that the earthly powers exercised in the choice of pastors and, for that reason, wished for the return to the ancient practice that saw bishops chosen by the clergy and the people.
      A practice really recoverable?
      SARAIVA MARTINS: The norms whereby bishops are chosen are not divine law and hence are always perfectible. But direct involvement, as if elective, of the laity in the choice of a bishop today would be unimaginable. Enough to think, among other things, of the role the media of social communication might play in the matter. In Rosmini’s time television still hadn’t been invented…
      Another of the wounds pointed out by Rosmini had to do with the liturgy…
      SARAIVA MARTINS: Rosmini understood the drama of a liturgy that was no longer comprehensible to the people and, often, not even by the celebrants themselves. Also in this his intuition anticipated the movement for liturgical renewal and of the needs expressed in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II.
Panoramic view of the complex of the Mount Calvary of Domodossola
      Permit me a question maybe a little off-the-cuff. What attitude might Rosmini take today towards the motu proprio Summorum pontificum?
      SARAIVA MARTINS: History isn’t made with ifs. But I don’t believe that if Rosmini were living today he would be against the motu proprio in question. Not least because he had a high conception of freedom and would have much appreciated the gesture of a Pope who grants believers the freedom they ask to be able to take part in a liturgy that was in any case the official one of the Church for centuries. Furthermore, keep in mind that Rosmini wished for both the clergy and the people to be able to understand and love the liturgy, and therewith wanted to affirm the need to pay attention also to the study of the liturgy and not simply – as some believe – to translate it into the common tongue.
      What other aspects of Vatican II did Rosmini anticipate?
      SARAIVA MARTINS: One of the aspects that certainly make Rosmini a precursor of the last Council was that of religious freedom. On that theme Rosmini really was a misunderstood forerunner. The Dignitatis humanae owes him a great deal.
      When Rosmini died he was under sixty. Is there really a possibility that he was poisoned?
      SARAIVA MARTINS: In effect, in the Positio prepared by Father Papa there is mention of some evidence that would lead one to think there were several attempts to poison Rosmini. Irrefutable evidence of the matter is lacking, however. But it doesn’t surprise one that the abbot might have been the target of attempts at physical elimination: he was certainly a troublesome figure, above all for certain centers of political power.
      The postulator of Rosmini’s cause has disclosed that the overall cost of the cause itself and of the ceremony of beatification is rather high. Forgive me the somewhat irreverent formulation: does it cost so much to become a saint?
      SARAIVA MARTINS: There’s no list of charges for becoming blessed or saint. Certainly, every process has inevitable costs: for the paper, the printing, for the proper fees for the lay and ecclesiastical experts and for the postulators and their colleagues. To that I should add that for “needy” causes, so to speak, there is a specific fund that can be drawn on.