Ben L. Kaufman – Enquirer Reporter
The Cincinnati Enquirer
December 22, 1973
Malachi Martin was nothing like anyone could have expected.
From his previous books, I knew he had been a Jesuit priest, archaeologist, rogue and strong-arm man for liberal organizers in the Vatican Council, and somewhat depressed observer of organized religion in the West.
I was not prepared for an almost elfin white-haired Irishman, impeccably dressed in tweeds and white, soft turtleneck sweater, and a limp from what he said was a fresh sabre wound.
He fences, not duels, and a partner slashed carelessly, hitting Martin’s right Achilles tendon.
Painful as the wound is, it is more troublesome to explain why he drives metal detectors at airports wild as he tours the country promoting his newest book “Jesus Now.”
Airport guards are willing to accept the steel brace on his right lower leg he said in a rushed late night interview in Cincinnati, and he has learned NOT to tell them it is a sabre wound.
What about the other guy? “I broke my sabre over his helmet.” Martin said with a grin of satisfaction.
Martin was finishing his doctorate in Semitic languages at Louvain University in Belgium in the 1950s when he came to the attention of the liberal caucus in the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Bea.
His dossier included Martin’s request for lay status, that is, he wanted to leave the priesthood.
Paths kept crossing and the cardinal recruited Father Martin as his aide-de-camp: Martin said, and a new career about which Martin has really written little begun.
Martin went to Rome with Bea, and as the cardinal and Pope John XXIII began rallying forces to push the Vatican Council, Martin was given exciting and seductive chores he said.
Some of his work involved intelligence gathering behind the Iron Curtain and throughout the Middle East, he said, and some of it involved shaking long-closeted skeletons in the faces of cardinals who didn’t quite want to do what Cardinal Bea and the pope wanted at the Vatican council.
“I saw cardinals sweating in front of me.” Martin recalled with mixed emotions. It was heady having that power, “and I began to enjoy it.”
A clear understanding of this malicious joy brought Martin to decide to get out of the Vatican power game, he said with a rare calm and almost serious expression on his lively face, and he called in Cardinal Bea’s promise to promote his request for lay status.
By that time Pope John was dead and Pope Paul VI was on the Throne of Peter, and no one really regretted seeing Martin go. You don’t play that game without making powerful enemies Martin said, and his effectiveness had ended.
With it had ended the missions Cardinal Bea had imposed on the somewhat reluctant Jesuit scholar, and he moved on.
His first major book in the popular field was “The Encounter” where he argued that the “priceless moments” that hold men and women to Islam, Christianity and Judaism have been lost and with them, the mystery, excitement and fun of their religion.
Then came his autobiographical history of part of the Vatican Council intrigue, “Three Popes and the Cardinal” (Pius, John, Paul and Bea). Here Martin gave some pretty keen insights into what Pope John had set loose on the church and the Catholic Church’s apparent inability to cope.
“Jesus Now” is the next step in Martin’s journey of a soul, his and his church’s, published recently by Dutton at $7.95.
“Jesus Now” operates on many levels. One is to make plain to the pious that every age has drawn its own Jesus, and these images have failed to sustain belief because the crumble when they become obsolete.
“You mean the way it was argued that Jesus would have been a labor leading in the 1930s, a warrior with the Allies or Germans in World War II and a civil rights demonstrator in 1963.” Martin was asked.
That is exactly his surface theme. “If Jesus is truly Jesus, then He is more than just a Jesus of Nazareth or any of these other Jesus figures.” Martin said.
Jesus is more than a “small sectarian leader.” And Jesus is “dissolving” these images in order that mankind can see Him more clearly.
That’s the easy part of Martin’s new book.
Then he launches into what he admits is the scene-setter for his next book, saying all we have left is the “true Jesus, the Jesus-Self who is the immutable, ageless Jesus, the stumbling block of the Jews and the folly of the Gentiles, who lives within each man and from whom there is no escape, the Jesus-Self which every man inexorably is”
Martin believes in the Jesus who “did not come in order to depart, and need not come again because he (sic) never went away. Jesus past, Jesus future, Jesus now.”
Whether Martin is working up his own Jesus image after damning Jesus images is for each reader to judge.
Disagreement is possible, yes, he said with a wily smile, but rejection of his views as beyond acceptable belief, no.
“Jesus is the expression of man’s desire for universal truth and harmony.” Martin said almost as a teaser to classic theologians, saying he is not quite that blunt in his book. To do that would risk losing the agreement he wants from readers whom he expects to help save the church from itself. “I must bring the people along.”
Martin bemoaned the situation in the Catholic Church where “the power to command obedience is gone.” Because the “cement” that held the church together for almost 2000 years, its “authority” has withered as impotence has faced demands for renewal.
“Jesus images” are impotent idols, Martin said, and they cannot satisfy each individual’s “longing” for God which besieges Christians and others today.
“How am I going to survive” remains a primary question of religion, Martin writes and says, and life today is a “theater of longing” where Jesus-images are poor companions.
To the extent that Jesus is dissolving these images men cast of Him, the fragments are merging into His spirit, what Martin called the “primary ingredient in the religious experience” in every person.
This will allow mankind to combat this longing as each person newly aware of Jesus says, “Let us be human together,” according to Martin. If Jesus is anything, “He is the spirit moving among men. This experience is genuine” and what believers say about it will provide the new “cement” for the church and belief.
Martin grinned when he conceded that in his thinking he has gone “beyond conventional belief” but not necessarily beyond what others can believe without a wrenching dislocation.
“I’m not traditional, I’m not heretical.” Martin said, reaching down to knead his right calf beneath the steel support. “I’ve put it too carefully for that.”
As to where it may lead him, Martin said the last six chapters of “Jesus Now” give a hint to those who can cope with the complex, lively and free-swinging debunking of conventional Christian imagery.