Obituary: Cardinal Francois Marty

Francois Marty, priest: born Pachins, France 18 May 1904; ordained priest 1930; Bishop of Saint-Flour 1952-60; Archbishop of Rheims 1960-68; Archbishop of Paris 1968-81 (Emeritus); created Cardinal 1969; died near Villefranche-de-Rouergue 16 February 1994.

CARDINAL Francois Marty, Archbishop of Paris from 1969 to 1981, was killed on Wednesday when his Citroen 2CV, trapped between the barriers of a level-crossing, was scythed through by a passenger train. He was 89 and had been living in retirement in the Dominican house at Villefranche- de-Rouergue, his home town, always good for an interview or a reminiscence.

Marty was appointed auxiliary bishop of Saint-Flour in 1952 on the advice of Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, then nuncio to France, the future Pope John XXIII. He remembered this roly-poly peasant farmer's son and elevated him to Archbishop of Rheims in 1960.

Because of the number of dioceses in France - 91 - the Archbishops form a kind of inner council. Marty was thus an important figure in the Vatican Council when it assembled in 1962. Though not one of the 'stars', he commanded attention because of his pastoral common sense and his experience with the priest-worker movement. The French contribution to the Council was the largely unrealised platitude that Christendom was over and the Church in Western Europe needed missionary outreach.

The Church had to learn by listening to unbelievers or 'atheists' and not just seek to refute them. On 28 September 1965, Marty made his big speech to the Council on 'modern atheism'. Much of what he said sounded like a reply to Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Existentialisme est un humanisme. He declared: 'Whether he is a positivist, a Marxist, or imbued with existentialism, the atheist is not a man who denies God systematically. What he refuses is faith in God in so far as such faith seems to him an illusion which diminishes man.'

According to Marty, the atheist - he meant the French atheist - thinks he is putting forward 'a message of salvation, an ethic and a spirituality which are more successful in delivering man from the servitudes which oppress him than the older ethic drawn from religious inspiration'. The Christian response was to formulate a Christian humanism which would 'distinguish in order to unite' sacred and profane history, the natural and the supernatural, Christian hope and earthly hope (conveniently distinguished in French as esperance and espoir).

Paul VI, like Marty brought up on Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier, liked this approach. It had a positive effect on the treatment of atheism in Gaudium et Spes, the Council's pastoral constitution, and on the Secretariat for Non-believers that was designed to implement it. Marty was a keen member of the Secretariat. He seemed thrown once when I suggested that the British atheist was less likely to be a student of Marx and Sartre than a weary Lockean empiricist pushing a bicycle uphill. 'Ah, les Anglo-Saxons]' he remarked in quiet Cartesian despair.

In March 1968 Paul VI moved him to Paris, where he became the Primate of France (as distinct from the Primate of the Gauls in the more ancient see of Lyons). No sooner had he arrived than the 'events of May' shook French society to its core. Some of Marty's theses on atheism were verified in the 'events'. One of the slogans painted up at the Sorbonne was Georges Bernanos' maxim 'La revolution sera spirituelle, ou elle ne sera pas'.

The consequences of 1968 in the life of the French church were unsettling. Priests formed a sort of trades union and angrily demanded the right to work and to marry. Students at the Institut Catholique in Paris sought to reduce their professors to 'resource persons', like encyclopaedias waiting to be consulted on a shelf. Structuralism invaded theology. There was wild-cat inter-communion (inter-communion sauvage).

Marty did not panic. His humble origins now stood him in good stead. He rolled his 'r's like the peasants of his region. No slick Parisian intellectual, he could play the card of attractive folksiness and rural bluntness. He was asked on television whether he was embarrassed to see a photograph of himself in France-Soir sitting in a cafe chatting with the barman.

Marty replied: 'The great sorrow of the Archbishop of Paris is to have to spend most of his time in an office, handling problems, reading reports, answering questions . . . At times the pressure is so great that I get up and walk the streets, just as Christ did . . . The other day, on such a walk, I passed the house of a man from my village. What would my father have said if he knew I had passed by without stopping and not shaken his hand?'

Marty shook hands with everyone - with Marxists, Muslims, migrant workers, the lapsed, the fervent. He drew the line at the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whom he saw as the unrepentant followers of Action Francaise and the Vichy regime. They had never accepted the French Revolution. There were heroic disputes, and the occupation of the Church of St Nicholas du Chardonnay. Marty could have called in the police to throw them out, but he did not.

Marty reorganised the structure of the diocese of Paris, making auxiliaries actively responsible for different sectors of the city. He delegated. His watchword was co-responsibility at all levels. The task of an archbishop was not to run the show but to be a 'centre of discernment'.

In 1971 the Parisian bishops were due to review their work over the last five years. To prevent Rome and Paris drifting apart, and to give practical expression to 'collegiality', at Marty's suggestion they met in Rome in the presence of Paul VI. It was a working session round a table, not a conventional ad limina audience. Delighted though a bit alarmed by the experience, Paul VI thought Paris should become the model for other large metropolitan dioceses. The effects extended to Sao Paolo, Brazil, and elsewhere.

The president of the French episcopal conference is elected for a fixed term. Marty finished his stint in 1975 and felt freer to express his personal views and take on the French government. He denounced the French arms trade, declaring that 'we cannot resign ourselves to making money by placing the instruments of death in the hands of others'. His only concession was to admit that the problem was more complicated than he first thought.

He retired on 31 January 1981, on reaching the age of 75. According to tradition, he was silent as the grave about his successor, the spectacular Jewish convert Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, and on the 'new Pope', John Paul II, who had appointed him.

Born in Pechins, north-east of Toulouse, in 1904, Marty studied at the local seminary and the Catholic Institute of Toulouse. His dissertation was on 'Modernism'. He thought it asked some of the right questions, a bold position in the 1920s. Ordained in 1930, he was a parish priest until 1951, when he became Vicar-General and Bishop of Saint-Flour.

On his retirement he said: 'I wanted to be for everyone a man of God and a brother, both for those who believed in God and those who didn't' Not a bad epitaph.

(Photograph omitted)