Martini, a Jesuit and former archbishop of the important archdiocese of Milan, had been battling Parkinson’s disease for several years. His death was announced by the Milan archdiocese, which said his condition had worsened Thursday evening.
He was an intellectual and a noted biblical scholar, yet he nevertheless had a warm and personable style and seemed to connect with his flock like few high-ranking prelates.
And, despite his liberal views in a College of Cardinals that grew increasingly conservative under Pope John Paul II, he was considered a possible contender in the 2005 conclave that brought the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to the papacy.
Martini was well known and well-liked by Italians, many of whom got to know him by his frequent contributions to leading daily Corriere della Sera, which for three years ran a popular column “Letters to Cardinal Martini,” in which Martini would respond directly to questions submitted by readers.
The topics covered everything from the clerical sex abuse scandal to whether it was morally acceptable for a Catholic to be cremated (”it’s possible and allowed,” he wrote). His responses were filled with Biblical citations and references to church teachings, but were accessible as well, written as if he were chatting with his reader rather than preaching.
But Martini was divisive as well.
In 2006, he raised eyebrows at the Vatican when he told the Italian weekly L’Espresso magazine that condoms could be considered a “lesser evil” in combatting AIDS, particularly for a married couple.
Four years later, Benedict himself would come close to echoing the sentiment when he said a male prostitute who intends to use a condom might be taking a step toward a more responsible sexuality because he was looking out for the welfare of his partner.
In 2009, Martini insisted he was misquoted by a German publication as calling for a re-evaluation of priestly celibacy as a means to combat pedophilia among priests.
But he returned to the topic of priestly celibacy earlier this year— as well as a host of other thorny issues like artificial procreation, embryo donation and euthanasia — in his last book “Believe and Know,” a conversation with a left-leaning Italian politician and doctor who had been his same interviewer for the 2006 Espresso article.
As a result of his openness to discuss issues many cardinals would rather leave undisturbed, liberal Catholics had pinned their hopes on Martini going into the 2005 conclave, and some reports in the Italian media said he had received significant votes in the initial rounds of balloting.
But according to the most detailed account of the conclave to emerge — that of a purported diary kept by an unnamed cardinal — Martini was never really in the running.
Instead, Ratzinger’s main challenger was another conservative, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio.
Martini retired as Milan archbishop in 2002 and moved to Jerusalem, where he hoped to devote himself to prayer and study. He had long established relations with the Jewish community, writing books and articles on the relations between Christianity and Judaism.
Born on Feb. 15, 1927, in Turin, Martini was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus in 1952. He was named archbishop of Milan in 1979 and held the post until his retirement in 2002; within that time he was also head of the European Bishops’ Conference for six years, until 1993.
In a statement Friday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi paid tribute to his fellow Jesuit, saying his style as a pastor set him apart. He quoted Martini as writing in his book “The Bishop” that a bishop can’t guide his flock with decrees and prohibitions alone.
“Instead point to the interior formation, on the love and fascination with the Sacred Scripture, present the positive reasons for what we do according to the Gospel,” Martini wrote. “You will obtain much more than with rigid calls to observe norms.”
Despite his desire to spend his final years in Jerusalem, Martini returned to Italy a few years ago as his Parkinson’s worsened.
In June, he announced he could no longer continue with his Corriere della Sera Q&A column, saying “The time has come in which age and sickness have given me a clear signal that it’s time to resign from earthly things and prepare for the next coming of the Kingdom,” he wrote his readers.
“I assure you of my prayers for all the questions that went unanswered.”
A funeral was scheduled for Monday in Milan’s cathedral, where bells tolled on Friday afternoon upon word of Martini’s death.