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In Valencia, One of Spanish Church’s Brightest Hopes

BY Francisco Deandres

April 13-19,1997 Issue | Posted 4/13/97 at 1:00 PM

 

WHEN HE WAS appointed bishop of Cordova, Spain, in March 1996, Xavier Martinez, 49, was already a familiar figure to many Spaniards, even outside the Church. As auxiliary bishop of Madrid the prelate had established a presence on television, radio, and in the print media while handling a range of sensitive issues as spokesman for the Spanish bishops' conference.

Since his appointment to Cordova by John Paul II last year, some Church observers have speculated that Bishop Martinez is a solid candidate for a still higher post in the Spanish Church or in the Vatican.

Xavier Martinez Fernandez was born in Madrid on Dec. 20, 1947 and grew up in a working-class family. His parents, after the Spanish Civil War, came down from Asturias to build their future in the capital. His father was a waiter and a postman, and his mother, who worked as a house-maid, taught the future prelate to face adversity with strong and simple faith. “To her,” Bishop Martinez has written, “faith was something as natural as breathing. I have learned from my mother much more about things that matter in life than at the university.”

But higher education has played a key role in the bishop's life. He earned a degree in biblical theology at Comillas in 1973, one year after becoming a priest. From there he continued his studies, first at the Spanish Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (1975-77), and afterwards abroad. Martinez spent six months in Germany, and then moved to Israel to study at the French Biblical School of Jerusalem (1978-79). Finally, he went to the United States to study Semitic philology at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington.

Bishop Martinez, who is fluent in French, English and German, specialized in the ancient Syrian language and literature, and has taught at the university level. He has participated in many international meetings related to Oriental Christianity and the Fathers of the Church and is a member of the International Association for Coptic Studies and the Association International d'Etudes Patristiques. After finishing at CUA, Bishop Martinez taught in Toledo and Madrid, and later founded the Instituto San Justino in the capital where he taught classic philology, the study of language and literature.

By various accounts, the bishop of Cordova is still studious, though most of his time now goes to his new pastoral duties. “He sleeps just a few hours, and spends part of the night working on a translation of St. Ephrem the Syrian,” said a former assistant.

But Bishop Martinez doesn't consider himself an intellectual. Ever wary of being estranged from the world of everyday affairs, the prelate has made it a point to stay closely involved with the issues of the day.Along with other young priests, Xavier Martinez, in 1975, established a series of camps for teenagers and summer courses on Christian doctrine in Avila. The experience led to the creation of Nueva Tierra (New Land), a cultural association to teach youngsters how to witness to their Christian faith in an everyday setting.

During his stay in Germany, Bishop Martinez became involved with the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation (CL), founded in Italy in the 1960s by Luigi Giussani, an Italian priest deeply concerned about the lack of Catholic formation among his students. By 1985, the soon-to-be Bishop Martinez and most of the priests and young members of Nueva Tierrawould join that organization. Almost at the same time, the Vatican named him the new auxiliary bishop of Madrid, making him the youngest Spanish bishop and the first to belong to Communion and Liberation.

Communion and Liberation's leaders consider their movement a fruit of the initiatives that blossomed in the Church after Vatican II. They say CL's charism is to establish a strong Christian presence in the world of culture, to inform it with the wisdom of the Gospel. The most well known activities of Communion and Liberation are the “Meetings” in Rome and other world capitals that gather hundreds of thousands of young people and a range of well-known personalities. The Pope is said to be a supporter of the movement, although, by some accounts, CL's influence in the Vatican has waned in recent years.

The idea that faith should inform modern culture led Bishop Martinez to become one of the most combative Spanish bishops during the final years of the country's socialist government. He was a key figure in a number of crucial commissions of the Spanish bishops'conference, including those dedicated to education, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the mass media. In 1989 he became a member of the Pontifical Council for the Dialogue with the Non-Believers, and in 1993, a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which replaced the former.

In April 1991, Bishop Martinez bluntly urged Catholics to vote for the political option that was “closer” to the Church doctrine with regard to the “abominable crime of abortion.” The prelate again angered left-wing political parties when, in November 1992, he spoke out against what he charged was socialist obstruction of the Church's mission. Because of its control of the Spanish state television, the government didn't allow the Church to broadcast spots asking Catholics for financial support. The government argued that those messages—although they were paid for by the bishops—were “ideological.”

Although he often denounced the campaign of secularization launched in the 1980s by the socialist government, Bishop Martinez has also criticized the positions of some prominent right-wing personalities. When the current vice president of the new Spanish conservative government, Francisco Alvarez Cascos, threw Catholic teaching to the wind when he decided last year to divorce his wife and re-marry, the bishop publicly criticized the official.

Bishop Martinez's combative approach contrasts sharply with the strategy of many members of the Spanish hierarchy who prefer to keep a low profile in the public arena. That low-key style, some say, is responsible for the hierarchy's relative lack of public standing. The latest poll on the most influential personalities in Spain finds the head of the Spanish bishops'conference, Archbishop Elias Yanes of Zaragoza, in 23rd place, behind a long list of politicians, bankers and media personalities.

But Bishop Martinez seems determined to do something about that. One successful step was his founding of Alfa y Omega, a publication of the Archdiocese of Madrid that examines social events in the light of faith. It has already reached a vast circulation in Spain because it appears as a supplement to ABC, one of the country's leading dailies.

Francisco de Andrés is based in Madrid, Spain.