Wednesday, March 14, 2007

80th Birthday Cake: €25... 50th Anniversary Card: €3... 1,300 Milanese Kicking Around in Jerusalem: Priceless.

As you know, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini marked his 80th birthday some weeks back. While the observance even included a public manifestation of Ratzi-love for the Catholic left's longtime standard-bearer, the real festa's going down this week in the emeritus Milan prelate's home of Jerusalem, where he settled after his 2002 retirement.

A delegation of 1,300 representatives from Europe's largest archdiocese -- "one for each parish and assorted others" according to a source familiar with the plans -- have swooped into the Holy City to pay tribute, led by the Jesuit scripturalist's successor, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi. The pilgrimage, which runs through Monday, also commemorates the latter's golden jubilee of priestly ordination in advance of its observance in June. The current leader of Italian Catholicism's moderate-progressive wing, ghost-author of JP2's 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae -- and one of the serious "Stop Ratzi" contenders floated at the 2005 conclave -- Tettamanzi, himself a Milan native, turns 73 today.

If a common traveler's experience is any indication, there'll be a lot of kicking going on -- not for purposes of calcio, nor as an element of the rite proper to the See of Ss. Ambrose and Charles.

While, as a rule, Italians have little patience for queues and crowds, that's ever-more the case with the denizens of Italy's fast-paced northern hub, the more eager of which have the tendency to get through with their feet... in ways that go beyond simply walking.

It's hard to forget the memory of being huddled with a phalanx of Lombards at the security checkpoints outside Bernini's Colonnade early on the morning of the largest canonization held by the greatest saint-maker in the history of the practice.

Clad in green scarves, i Milanesi had converged on the Vatican to serve as the cheering section (and quite the excitable one, at that) for their adopted daughter Josephine Bakhita, the Sudanese slave who came to Italy, becoming a religious of considerable renown not far from the Bel Paese's largest city.

As the checkpoints were preparing to open, I found myself chatting with the Milanese about Martini -- arguably, one of the more engaged prelates of the modern era -- and they were practically singing hymns of praise to him, clearly pleased to hear that he was known in America. The flock just couldn't say enough loving things about their archbishop.

Then the barricades were parted and lines ordered to form. And, seemingly on a dime, the children of Mother Bakhita promptly switched gears and started stampeding their way past the rest of us, kicking their way through like a charging herd.

Meanwhile, the Spanish pilgrims present for one of their own got the hint and began to push (or punch), the supplicants of the 120 Chinese martyrs -- whose sainthood on the country's National Day prompted a protest from Beijing -- prayed silently, awed by the basilica before them and unfazed by the surging mass of humanity, and some among the throng of Yanks who'd come to witness Philadelphia's own Katharine Drexel raised to the honors of the altar did what our kind do and began screaming, seemingly in the name of just, well, doing something.

The effort yielded as much.

As you can tell, it made for quite the experience -- I loved every second. And, for the record, it all repeated itself the next morning like clockwork as the Piazza hosted the papal audience for the canonization pilgrims.

Back to the birthday boy, who shares his age with Benedict XVI (the papal 80th falling a month from Friday), Martini's said to have received over 5,000 pieces of congratulatory mail to mark the beginning of his ninth decade. The crush of visitors to his pad at the Pontifical Biblical Institute is such that only callers from Milan are being received.

But the years haven't slowed him entirely; the cardinal is showing no signs of letting up his habit of penning "articles disturbing the peace of his Italian fratelli," says a friend.

And much as others are keen to close their ears, a certain man in white just keeps on listening.