Thousands flocked to Milan Cathedral on Saturday, September 1, to pay their final respects to Italian cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who warned in an interview published posthumously that the Church was “200 years behind”.

Solemn crowds looked on as pall-bearers carried to the cathedral the coffin of Martini, a former archbishop of Milan who commanded widespread respect and advocated reform on issues such as contraception and women in the Church.

"The Church has been left 200 years behind. Why doesn’t it rouse itself? Are we afraid?" he asked in his last interview, conducted by a fellow Jesuit in early August and published in the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday.

A hero among reform-minded Catholics, Martini never tired of his quest to modernize the staunchly traditional institution, openly questioning the Church on contentious issues such as the clerical sex-abuse scandal and divorce.

"The Church is tired. Our culture has grown old, our churches are large, our religious houses are empty… and our rites and costumes are pompous," he said.

The cardinal, who had once been tipped as a possible future pope, had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for years and died on Friday aged 85.

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