by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you received your vocation, why did you choose to be a Servite?
Father Martin: As a child and teenager, I had not yet grappled with the possibility of a spiritual vocation. My wish and goal was to become a natural scientist. I grew up on a farm in the Dolomites, a part of the Alps between Italy and Austria. My love of nature, especially my interest in animals, is something I was almost born with. My dream was to study behavioural biology.
However, when I was 16 years old, I experienced a crisis of sense of life. At that time, we read texts by Friedrich Nietzsche in philosophy class at school. Like him, I suffered from severe headaches in my youth.
I don't think I understood his philosophy at the time, but it fascinated and occupied me, especially his philosophy of God’s death as a consequence of the Enlightenment that tried to eliminate the possibility of the existence of God. For me it was interesting to see that he did not resign himself to it, but at the bottom of his heart, I believe, he continued to be a seeker.
Even if he no longer found faith in God. That was the time when I dealt more intensively with the question of God and for the first time heard the question in me whether the path of a spiritual vocation could not be my path.
At first I tried to suppress it, but then I allowed the thought and the idea to come to me and sought dialogue with people I could trust. When I tell someone that Nietzsche helped me find my spiritual vocation, my listeners sometimes wonder. But that's how it was. Of course, it also played a role that I grew up in a home with a good Catholic tradition.
My parents were deeply devout Catholics. An uncle of mine, Luis Lintner, was a Diocesan priest and a missionary in Brazil from 1980 to 2002. In 2002, he was murdered by the death squads in the city of Salvador da Bahia. He lived with the small farmers for the first ten years and then in the slums of Salvador until his violent death, where he worked especially for the children and women of the favelas.
Why did I choose to be a Servite? Near my home farm there is a Marian shrine, Maria Weissenstein, which is looked after by the Servite Fathers. Our family made a pilgrimage there once or twice a year. So I have had a relationship with this place of pilgrimage from an early age. When I was a teenager, I always helped out for a few weeks in the summer at a mission exhibition, where the Fathers provided information about their activities in the mission countries such as Africa or India. At that time, I built up a friendship with two Fathers, who were later certainly important in my choosing the Servite Order.
The decisive factor, however, was the spirituality of the order. The Marian spirituality fascinated me. I could identify well with it. It is the Mary we meet in the Bible: She says yes to the will of God, she gives space to the Word of God within herself, she accompanies Jesus as a mother and disciple through his life, she finally perseveres at his cross. How Mary was there for Jesus in her life, to be there for people today, that appealed to me very much. It is a tender and life-affirming spirituality that characterises the Servite order.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary, and what was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it so challenging?
Father Martin I attended the Gymnasium-Lyceum in the so-called minor seminary “Johanneum” in South-Tyrol, Northern Italy. After the school-leaving examination I studied for two years as a private student in Innsbruck, Austria, and then joined the Order. After the novitiate in Siena, I continued my studies in Vienna and finally spent two years in Rome at the GregorianUniversity before I completed my doctorate in Vienna.
When I think back on my studies, I must confess that I tend to remember courses that were more or less interesting, less those that were more or less challenging. Fortunately, most of the subjects interested me very much. Especially the biblical subjects, but also philosophy, systematic theology and especially moral theology.
At the beginning of my studies, I wanted to deal more with the topics of fundamental theology, with the relationship between knowledge and faith, natural sciences and theology. That's why I also attended lectures at the Faculty of Natural Sciences, e.g. on the evolutionary development of man, on behavioral biology and on evolutionary epistemology. It was very interesting to discuss with professors and students who were basically rather distanced from the Christian faith.
It was very exciting to connect the biblical statements about the world and humanity with the scientific findings, to see them not as opposites but as different perspectives on the same reality that complement each other.
The lectures in moral theology had a lasting effect on me. Here, the daily questions and challenges were dealt with that we as humans came into contact with on a daily basis, regardless of our faith or worldview. What was exciting for me was the question of whether and how I could translate convictions from my faith into conversation with people in a secular context who were not themselves believers, so that they were also convincing for them.
The translation work from a religious language into a philosophical and secular ethical language was very interesting and at the same time challenging to me. In the process, I became aware of the importance of an enlightened and mature conscience, the importance of human dignity and moral self-determination.
Gordon: What was the subject of your doctoral dissertation?
Father Martin: The topic of my dissertation was the ethics of giving. The starting point was the examination of the ethical and existential problem of organ donation. Can organ donation be interpreted as a gift? It was then very exciting to deal fundamentally with the phenomenon of the gift, first from a cultural-historical perspective, then the phenomenological discourses on the gift, finally the theological dimension, which led to an intensive preoccupation with grace and with the interaction of divine and human action.
In philosophy, there are schools of thought that believe that the gift as such does not exist, since it must remain unrecognized. Any form of symbolic recognition would constitute a kind of counter-gift and thus annul the gift, transforming it into a form of exchange, argues Derrida, for example.
Personally, I have come to the conclusion that what distinguishes the gift and differentiates it from exchange is that it is a form of communication of feelings and emotions, of the meaning of a relationship. In the end, a gift succeeds when it deepens relationships and when someone gives something of himself through the gift and thus remains present in the life of the recipient.
Significantly, we also call a gift a present. In this sense, the gift means the request for relationship. The recipient can accept or reject this request in the way he accepts and returns a gift. I was then also very occupied with the question of generosity and gratuity. Especially in our meritocracy it is important that we never forget that the basis of our life and our relationships is what we cannot buy or earn. When we feel and live the gift character of life, we experience ourselves richly endowed and come into contact with the mystery of our life.
Gordon: What were your responsibilities as chaplain in the Servitenparre St. Mariä Himmelfahrt in Gelsenkirchen-Buer, Germany?
Father Martin: In the parish I did not have any special responsibilities, but the everyday ones that come with pastoral care. The celebration of the sacraments, accompanying people in the most diverse life situations, from the birth of a child to the death of a loved one, from weddings to accompanying couples after a separation. It was also important to visit people at home who were alone or who could no longer come to church because of their age or illness.
In the area of the parish there were also three hospitals, so the pastoral care of the sick was important. I was often called to the dying or to accompany relatives when someone had died in hospital. These were always very intense moments and encounters. In the pastoral care of the parish, I have always been fascinated and at the same time grateful by the way people give you their trust and let you share in their lives with the joyful and sad occasions
Gordon: Where do you currently teach and what subjects do you teach?
Father Martin: Since 2009 I have been teaching moral theology at the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen in South Tyrol, Northern Italy. Thereby I have to teach all areas of moral theology, fundamental morality as well as the different areas of special and applied morality. In addition, my chair includes the subject of Spiritual Theology. In my publications I deal especially with topics such as sexual ethics and ethics of relationship, environmental and animal ethics, bioethics and medical ethics. I then also offer lectures and seminars on these topics.
For some years now I have also been lecturing at the theological faculty in Trento and at the Free University of Bolzano. I find the interdisciplinary collaboration with non-theological faculties very exciting and enriching. I believe we need to build coalitions with many people and scientists who deal with the same ethical challenges as we do, even though from different perspectives. Only if we join one each other and if we share our energy, passion and knowledge we can affront challenges such as climate change, social justice, gender justice, environmental and animal ethics, medical ethics, but also the scandal of sexual abuse and sexualized violence.
These are some of the topics of interdisciplinary events I am engaged with, e.g. in ethical committees. Furthermore, I am invited outside my college, for guest lectures and for visiting professorships. Before the Covid pandemic, for example, I was very lucky to be able to accept a guest professorship at DLS University in Manila, and now I am currently holding a seminar on animal ethics at the Catholic Faculty of the University of Würzburg, albeit only online, due to Covid.
Gordon: What Impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had at your University?
Father Martin: Due to the pandemic, classroom teaching is no longer possible. Within a very short time, we had to switch all teaching to online. Lectures take place in the form of video conferences, and teaching materials are additionally made available as audio files or videos. Since students do not have the opportunity to use the library, it is necessary to make many teaching materials available as PDFs.
Overall, my experience is that, thanks to the Internet, it is possible to continue to teach, but nevertheless the quality is not the same. On the one hand, I miss the direct contact and the discussions with my students in the classroom. Being present in the classroom, there is a special dynamic of group and discussion that is difficult to realize at a virtual conference.
On the other hand, there are also students who find it easier to ask questions and share their insights in this way. So they write questions or reflections by mail or chat even outside of lectures, we can then arrange for a personal video conference and discuss it. In this sense, the contacts with some students have intensified and the student support has become more personal.
Gordon: You have a strong interest in Mariology. What fascinates you about Mariology?
Father Martin: Mariology initially interested me because I wanted to know and understand the spirituality of my order better. In addition, I have had a relationship of trust with Mary from an early age. This began with the pilgrimages to Maria Weissenstein in the Dolomites with my family, which I have already told you about.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a very interesting figure in the Scriptures and in the salvation event of Christ. She is the woman who becomes pregnant with the Word of God because God loves her and she allows and accepts this love. She trusts God to make possible what is humanly impossible. She does not hesitate for a long time, but gives herself to this God and in spite of all difficulties she does not withdraw anymore.
At the wedding of Cana, it is she who attentively notices that the wine is running out, the symbol of joy of life, and who urges her son to do something about it. Finally she is the one who stand at the foot of the cross of her crucified Son. It is fascinating how God worked through the simple young girl of Nazareth because she allowed it. For me she is like a sister in faith because she is not unfamiliar with the human experiences of doubt, question, obstacles. But she is also a teacher, because she herself was completely in the school of her Son, not only his mother, but also his first disciple.
The most important Marian aspect in the spirituality of our Order is: As Mary was there for Christ in her life, so we want to be there today for the people in whose face we recognize the presence of Christ. Mary is a thoroughly life-affirming person. Her canticle, the Magnificat, testifies to the upheaval of social injustice and the overcoming of oppressive systems. This is a program that is far from being realized and in which we still can continue to participate for a long time to come.
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional and memorable interview!