THE DEATH of Cardinal Jacques Martin marks the end of what was inevitably called 'the French mafia' which flourished in the Roman Curia under the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. As Prefect of the Pontifical Household Martin controlled access to the Pope through private audiences.
The fact that another Frenchman, Jean Villot, was the first non-Italian Secretary of State since the Renaissance delivered a blow to Italian sensibilities that prefaced the even greater shock of a non-Italian Pope. Martin was believed to be in league with Villot.
The truth was rather that his deepest loyalty was to Paul VI personally. For Giovanni Battista Montini had been his superior when, two years after ordination, he arrived to work in the Secretariat of State in 1936. Montini was his maestro in Vatican diplomacy, his patron and his champion.
He wrote articles about this subsequently. From Montini he learnt to see diplomacy not as cunning or artifice (Machiavelli's astuzia fortunata) but as a form of apostolate. The curialist should listen more than he speaks, and make everyone he meets feel they are the most important person in the world.
In the 16th century the ideal was to work with the galley slaves at weekends as a relief from bureaucratic work. In the 20th century it meant insisting that those curially chair-borne and desk-bound should have some ministry more exciting than preaching to nuns.
Martin treasured a brief note from Montini written just three days after the humiliating French armistice of June 1940. 'Cher ami,' it began, 'I didn't have time to see you today to talk about the terrible ordeal your great country is undergoing. I would have liked to tell you how close I feel to you, and how I pray that the Lord will transform these painful sufferings into blessings for France, for the Church and for the world. I hope and pray that this will happen, and say this with all my heart, also because you know the friendship of . . . GB Montini.'
As Pope, Paul VI used him in 'delicate' diplomatic missions such as preparing the ground for his visit to the Holy Land in January 1964, to India in December 1964 and to UNO in October 1965.
These 'pilgrimages' were symbolically planned to be a return to Christian origins, a tribute to non-Christian religions and a greeting to the world in miniature. He did the 'forward planning' that later fell to Archbishop Paul Casimir Marcinkus, though he could never emulate the Chicago ex-American football player in his role as papal 'gorilla'.
Surprisingly, perhaps, nothing changed under the Polish Pope elected in 1978. Martin remained Prefect of the papal household, which meant that he had to field requests for private audiences, a post which gave him, he claimed, an extensive knowledge of human nature comparable to working on a gossip column. Though thoroughly imbued with romanita, he also retained his Gallic freedom of wit. He played the role of the 'mildly outrageous outspoken Frenchman' created by Cardinal Eugene Tisserant.
'I am the link between the Holy Father and the world,' he confided after two years of Pope John Paul II, 'I am the lift going up and down - but there is also an escalier derobe, a back staircase, and it is crowded with Poles.'
'The Holy Father,' he announced, 'wants everything to be in black-and-white. I don't mind, if that's what he wents. but it is not very . . . diplomatique.'
The undiplomatic Pope made him a cardinal in 1988 just as he reached the age of 80, which meant that he could not take part in a conclave. He saw the joke, complained about the expense of his robes, and continued to grumble about the appalling modern pictures Paul VI had let into the Vatican.
Born in Amiens in 1908, Martin was ordained priest in 1934, becoming titular bishop in 1964 and archbishop in 1986. He wrote two popular but untranslated works on Vatican Heraldry and The Unknown Vatican. His major historical work was a study of the Paris Nunciature of the Holy See.
The post of 'outspoken French cardinal' is now vacant.
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