National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Posted: November 6, 2003

Interview with Cardinal José Saraiva Martins

November 5, 2003

By John L. Allen, Jr.

Portuguese Cardinal José Saraiva Martins is prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Last year he turned 70, and the Urbaniana University Press recently honored him with a book of essays.

In an exclusive interview with NCR Rome Correspondent John L. Allen, Jr., Saraiva Martins spoke on a wide range of topics looking back over his career as a Claretian priest, theologian, rector of the Urbaniana University, then secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education from 1988 to 1998 and prefect of the Congregation for Saints from 1998 to the present.

Congratulations on Veritas in Caritate, a collection of essays in your honor published by Urbaniana University Press.

My university was kind to me. The contributions are all on a high level, and they were all written ad-hoc. Often in these books you find recycled articles, but in this case they’re all original.

From your 15 years in the Roman Curia, what would you say you’ve learned about the Catholic Church?

Working in the Roman Curia one is conscious of collaborating with the Holy Father. Naturally, working with the Holy Father you develop a more profound understanding of the mystery of the Church, whose supreme pastor, after all, is the pope. I’ve always found this incredibly enriching, with all the popes, because I’ve known a few popes. But it’s especially true with this pope, because he’s such a great personality … a great human being, priest and bishop, in addition to being the pope. I’ve had the chance to work with, to converse with, this man who is a true model of holiness and a true pastor. I’ve learned a great deal, for example, from his apostolic dynamism. That’s undoubtedly been one of his defining traits over the 25 years of his pontificate, and it continues today. This pastoral activity has been expressed in many ways, but I like to emphasize the trips. They’re true apostolic voyages, not tourist trips for personal pleasure. I would say that like St. Paul, this pope has put himself on the roads of the world in order to announce the gospel.

You’ve accompanied the pope on several trips.

Many, yes. As the prefect of this congregation, I’ve made all the trips the pope has beatified or canonized someone.

You’re also a Claretian priest. In what sense does this spiritual formation continue influence you?

My institute is basically a missionary one. Thus this idea of mission, of evangelization, has been fundamental for me, especially in the 17-18 years I spent at the Urbaniana University, which is the missionary institute of the Church. This missionary outlook is profoundly rooted in me. Of course, I believe that every priest, in fact every Christian, should understand themselves as a missionary, in virtue of the evangelizing vocation imparted by baptism. But certainly a priest formed in a missionary institute will feel this call in a special way. This has influenced me greatly.

From this missionary background, would you say you have a more global outlook?

Yes, yes. I strive to have a missionary spirit, and a missionary mentality, which means a universal mentality, genuinely ‘catholic.’ I thank God that over the course of the years I’ve had the pleasure to visit more or less the entire missionary world, in Africa, in Asia, and so forth. During my summer vacations while I was at the Urbaniana University, I would visit all the institutions around the world connected with the university, which took me to Asia, to Latin America, all over. Thus a universal, missionary perspective on the Church became deeply rooted in me. I learned to know and love the universal Church.

In all its diversity?

In all its diversity and also its unity. You have this expression: Ex pluribus unum. Plurality is absolutely necessary, the pluribus. But unity is also necessary. We must strive for a balance. Diversity is intrinsic to the human person. The various local churches have to maintain their specific natures. This is where we find the problem of inculturation. The churches have to live the one faith, but in a way conformed to their own culture. They have to express themselves with the concepts, the language, appropriate to their own cultures, not to ours.

There is still work to do along these lines?

The work of inculturation goes on continually, and not just in the missionary churches, by the way, but also in the churches of antique Christian tradition. There’s an urgent work of inculturation to do also in the First World, in the world of today, using the language of today.

Paul VI said the great tragedy of our epoch was the split between faith and culture.

I wrote a book precisely on this point, the relationship between mission and culture. My point was that when we talk about inculturation, the tendency is to automatically think of mission countries. This is a big mistake. There’s a work of inculturation to be done right here in Rome! Also in London, in Paris, in Lisbon, and so on … also the United States. The great problem facing us is that we’re not succeeding in expressing the faith in the language of the person of today. Thus I would say that the challenge in traditionally Christian, Catholic, countries is to adapt our language and incarnate it in the realities of the person of today, using the language of today, not a century ago. We’re in a new world, a new culture. This work obliges us here, too [in the Curia].

This is a challenge for pastors, but also for theologians. You were a theologian before you were called to service in the Curia. How do you see the relationship between theologians and the magisterium?

This is an intrinsic, not extrinsic, relationship. This is absolutely necessary. Theologians are at the service of the magisterium. They have the duty of reflecting upon the Word of God as presented by the magisterium. Theology is not an abstract science like mathematics. It’s at the service of the Church, the service of the ecclesial community, reflecting upon the Word, the Word of God, that the pastors announce. Understood this way, theology is essential for pastoral work, since a pastoral strategy should be nothing more than the magisterium translated into practice.

Are you pained by the tension one often finds between the magisterium and the theological community, especially in the developed world?

For me it’s a real source of suffering, as a theologian, as a Christian, and as a pastor. It’s absurd. Theologians cease doing theology when they set themselves up in opposition to the magisterium. The magisterium is a help to theologians, and theology is a help to the magisterium.

How can this tension be healed?

Returning to the true concept of theology, as a deepening of Christian faith. If I conceive of theology as a service directed towards a deeper understanding of the Word of God, if I conceive it truly as a service to the Church and the community, then it’s impossible as a theologian that such a rupture should happen. If it does, I haven’t understood anything about theology, or about the Church, or the ecclesial community. In that case I’m not doing theology, true theology, but some more or less subjective interpretations. Theology roots itself in the Word of God, as announced and preached by the magisterium.

You worked for ten years in the Congregation for Catholic Education, where perhaps your most important project was the 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae on Catholic universities. From your point of view, has that document achieved what you set out to achieve?

Certainly it’s done a lot of good. That document was the first on Catholic universities. There had been a document on ecclesiastical universities, Sapienta Cristiana. But there was nothing on Catholic universities, and it was a wild world. Everybody was doing his own thing. I was extremely involved in the work on that document. Before we published it, in 1989, there was a congress for rectors of Catholic universities around the world in which a draft of the document was under study. I was serving under Cardinal William Baum at the time, but because he was sick, he couldn’t attend the congress and so his role fell to me.  It was not easy. There was a skeptical tendency, above all from the United States. The rectors from the United States were skeptical. But the congress went very, very well, and by the end the Americans were actually very sweet to me. They certainly weren’t in agreement with us at the beginning, and I tried my best to be persuasive. It went very well. We created a commission of rectors, which was requested by the congress. One year later, it met, and that went very well. But you asked if Ex Corde lived up to our hopes, and I would say perhaps it didn’t so totally, but it certainly did a great deal of good.  Many Catholic universities took it very seriously. Thus we can say that thanks to that document, there’s a shared general orientation with respect to Catholic universities. In any event, the attitude of the Church towards these indispensable institutions is very, very clear.

Why do you say it did not succeed totally?

Because the contexts are very different. The American context is very different from that of Argentina, or Brazil, or Italy. There are different sensibilities. In some cases, governments may interfere with the concrete organization of a Catholic university. Thus it’s very difficult to say “totally,” in the sense that all the problems are solved. But I think for the most part, Catholic universities took the document very seriously and applied it to the extent they felt it was possible in their circumstances, in light of the various kinds of civil legislation under which they work.

In the United States, the bishops struggled with a set of norms to implement Ex Corde for a long time. Do you have the impression that all this effort, in the end, resulted in a deeper appreciation for the identity of Catholic universities in the United States?

It’s for sure. I followed that debate in the United States very closely in those years. We tried to illuminate the bishops a little bit. I don’t want to say that we imposed upon the bishops, but we did exercise a little bit of pressure, in a good sense. Certainly today the Catholic universities are much more aware of the duty and the nature of a Catholic university.

Let’s talk about your work at the Congregation for Saints. You’ve overseen a number of well-known causes, including Faustina Kowalska, Edith Stein, Padre Pio, Josemaria Escriva, John XXIII, Pius IX, and Mother Teresa. Is there one that has had a special impact on you?

For me, all the saints are striking, because each his or her own special charism, equally significant for the Church and for the people of today. But one who struck me in a special way was Edith Stein. She was a Jewish convert who became a religious sister, a philosopher. For me, she was a model of how a person, after a great search for the truth, can find it and live it profoundly. This truth is the truth of the gospel. The path she followed to me was very special, from Judaism though philosophy to religious life. It was an extraordinary life.

You admire the way her life was coherent with her intellectual journey.

Exactly. Another one who struck me, obviously, was Teresa of Calcutta, this great little woman.

Had you met her?

Several times.

What impression did you have?

When you talk about Mother Teresa, you’re talking about an extraordinary person, someone beyond the norm. She was like someone who lived in another world, without losing anything of the concreteness of life in the here and now. It was clear that she had a holy soul. It was contagious, her holiness. She struck me a great deal. I met her first when I was the rector at the Urban University, where she visited several times. Then when I worked at the Congregation for Education, she came there too several times to discuss her problems, in part because she was a great friend of Cardinal Laghi, who was then the prefect. Then I had the honor and the pleasure of receiving the profession of religious vows of a large group of her sisters, and Teresa was there. I learned many things from her that day and on other occasions. She was a remarkable person.

Was this the first time you participated in the beatification of someone you had known personally?

Yes. It was a great experience, very intense, very unforgettable.

Before the beatification, there was some discussion about proceeding directly to canonization. This reflects the argument made by some theologians that the antique distinction between beatification as an act of the local church and canonization as an act of the universal church no longer makes sense, given that beatifications like that of Mother Teresa are now by definition global events. What do you think?

The history is fairly complex, and has changed much over time. At first, it was the local bishops who beatified and canonized. But from when this congregation was founded in 1588, the distinction between beatification and canonization became very clear, with the local dimension for beatification and the universal for canonization. Has this lost its significance? I don’t believe so. After all, the cases of Mother Teresa or Padre Pio are obviously exceptional. They can’t be used to judge the norm. The juridical norms are quite clear. On the other hand, this is obviously not a dogma of the faith. It could change.

Is this under discussion ?

The problem has never been posed in these terms, of openly discussing yes or no, whether we should suppress beatification. Of course some say this, it’s talked about.

So the discussion is maturing.

Sure. Some have this opinion, some have that opinion, but formally speaking the issue is not being addressed in these terms. The issue came up this time in connection with Mother Teresa. If we had made an exception for Mother Teresa, then we would have created a precedent. This would have invited an avalanche of requests for similar exceptions. Sure, I could say Mother Teresa is an exceptional case, she was an unusual figure. But that certainly would not stop the general of an order from saying, “But my founder was every bit as holy as Mother Teresa. Why can’t we have an exception for her too?” The point is that creating a precedent is always dangerous. It’s better to stick with the existing legislation.

Is there a contribution in the book that struck you in a special way?

The article by Cardinal Kasper struck me, on the saints and ecumenism. He argued that the saints can give a precious contribution to ecumenism. The pope has said the same thing, in Tertio Millenio Adveniente. He says that the ecumenism of the saints, above all the martyrs, is much more convincing, and the communio santorum speaks with a much louder voice, than the factors of division. Thus there’s an intrinsic relationship between holiness and ecumenism. I think this is fundamental for the Church of today.

Kasper also notes, however, that the saints still divide Protestants and Catholics over the issue of intercession. Protestants typically frown on any suggestion that a human being, even a saint, “cooperates” in salvation.

For me, it’s clear that saints are intercessors. The miracle carried out by a saint in order to be beatified or canonized is done by means of intercession. Thus in the very nucleus of what it means to be a saint one finds this idea of intercession. Moreover, the people see the saints as intercessors with God. This is the faith of the Christian community, which for me is fundamental. But at the same time, I would say that we shouldn’t reduce the role of the saints to intercessors. The saints, before they’re intercessors, are models of the Christian life to which everyone is called. They reflect the holiness we all should reflect. This aspect perhaps has faded from view a bit.

Kasper also suggests that we Catholics should emphasize that intercession takes nothing away from the oneness of salvation in Christ, or the independence of God’s will. It’s not like a saint “lobbies” God and thereby persuades God to do something God otherwise would not have done.

The God who works a miracle through a saint is the God who is incarnate in Christ. The work of a saint doesn’t exclude Christ. And they don’t force God’s hand … they offer what we might call a “sweet pressure.”

Thus the Protestant/Catholic divide over intercession is artificial.

Yes, it’s artificial. We are rooted in Christ. Our God is not an abstract God, but is God incarnate. The Catholic Church recognizes only one source of salvation, and it’s Christ.

I was also struck by the contribution of Cardinal Re on collegiality. Would you say that we’ve arrived at the right balance between the local church and the universal church?

We’ve come a long way, that’s clear. The understanding of collegiality we have thanks to the council has been received at both the level of the local church and the universal church, no question. Obviously we still have to search for new ways in which this concept of collegiality can be translated into practice, no doubt. For me, the most important thing is that this understanding of episcopal collegiality has entered the bloodstream of the church, because it wasn’t always so in our history. I’ve written a fair bit about this issue, about collegiality in the fathers of the church, the Middle Ages, at Trent, at Vatican II, and under John Paul II. Thus it’s a theme that has always been close to my heart. One thing is sure: collegiality and the primacy of the pope are not opposed, but they actually require one another and illuminate one another. Without the head, there’s no body, and without the body there’s no head.

I was struck reading a biography of St. Anthony Maria Claret, the founder of your community, that he was a strong supporter of the definition of infallibility at Vatican I. Hence the idea that a strong papacy is not incompatible with collegiality is in your religious DNA.

Absolutely. Without the college, there would be no primacy. The challenge is to interpret more acutely the meaning of collegiality and the primacy. There is no contradiction between the two. What needs to be reflected upon here isn’t so much the theory as they ways in which primacy and collegiality are exercised.   The pope himself has said this in many places. I’m convinced, for example, that the Orthodox churches aren’t so much opposed to papal primacy as they are to certain ways the primacy has been conceived historically, in maximalist fashion, like a civil power or an absolute monarchy. That’s not the evangelical sense. Hence it’s not so much defining primacy or collegiality, but perfecting the ways in which they function together. They are inextricably linked.

What’s the role of the Roman Curia in this link?

The Roman Curia collaborates with the pope. Its function is to translate the will of the pope into concrete reality. The Curia is at the service of the pope. Its role is to execute the thinking of the pope. Obviously we provide advice, etc., but in the end we are here to carry out his thought.

If the link between primacy and collegiality is truly intrinsic, can we say the Roman Curia is also at the service of the episcopal college?

The Holy Father is the head of the episcopal college, thus implicitly it’s exactly so.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 2003

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