The genius who is able to reach out to atheists

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Cardinal Ravasi is undoubtedly one of the leading figures of contemporary Italian culture. He is, in fact, considered a prominent intellectual not only in Catholic circles but even by the Italian secular milieu.

His story begins in 1942 in Lombardy, the newborn son of an anti-Fascist tax official and a teacher. He wanted to be a teacher of the Greek and Latin classics, but something happened in his heart and mind and he decided to enter the seminary. After his ordination in 1966 he studied in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Institute. In that period he learnt a dozen of languages, beginning with Ancient Greek (“Those 64,327 words that make up the four gospels in their original language,” as he puts it), passing on then to Hebrew and other ancient and modern languages. While doing his doctorate he spent time in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Jordan on archaeological digs. His deep knowledge of the Bible has been surfacing in his words ever since, even when he talks about football.

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He spent some time as a professor of exegesis of the Old Testament at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy in Milan. Cardinal Martini then appointed him prefect of the Ambrosian Library in 1989. He remained there until 2007 and in that long period became a media personality. He has contributed – and still does – to many Italian media, both Catholic instruments like L’Osservatore Romano and the bishops’ newspaper Avvenire and secular ones, like the Italian employers’ federation’s newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore and Silvio Berlusconi’s television stations. It is curious to note that for 17 years he was a star on Canale 5, Berlusconi’s flagship channel. He never appeared, of course, in Berlusconi’s media circus, which is made up of buffoons and “showgirls”, but he had his own Sunday morning programme, Le frontiere dello spirito (“Frontiers of the spirit”), with a contractual agreement that advertisements would never interrupt his interpretive readings of the Bible.

He gained the prestige of a bishop without being one. In the eyes of Italians he represented the Church much more than many actual bishops. He was rumoured to be about to become Bishop of Assisi in 2005, but a controversial sentence about Easter he wrote in 2002 in Il Sole 24 Ore (“He was not raised; he arose”) probably cost him that post.

Nevertheless, if you say “Ravasi” in Italy people will instantly think of his speeches, his articles, his television appearances and his books. He has written more than 150 books, and it is not surprising that he has been defined both a modern Pico della Mirandola and a contemporary St Bernardino of Siena. Vatican watcher
John Allen has called him “the most interesting man in the Church”. It is hard to contradict him.

These are probably some of the reasons why, in 2007, Pope Benedict appointed him president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church and head of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology. The Pope ordained him as a bishop and then made him a cardinal in 2010. And even with a purple hat, and then red one, on his head he has kept himself busy. One of the initiatives he has received most attention for is the Courtyard of the Gentiles, a high-profile cultural project in which believers and non-believers meet. The title recalls the vast area near the Temple of Jerusalem reserved for debates between Jews and non-Jews. “The aim,” Cardinal Ravasi has said, “is to help to ensure that the great questions about human existence, especially the spiritual questions, are borne in mind and discussed in our societies, using our common reason.”

The Courtyard of the Gentiles has had a successful run in Spain, Sweden, France, Italy, Portugal and Mexico. What lies behind this initiative is clear in Cardinal Ravasi’s mind: “Eventually we would like the Church to slowly go beyond the perimeters of parishes, so people can take the message out on the streets. It’s a way to engage with those who maybe would never go to church, but still they ask the same questions as believers.”
Cardinal Ravasi’s attraction towards non-believers and modernity in general is often clear in his words. For example, in 2008 he underlined that the Church has never condemned Charles Darwin and his theories, despite some claims to the contrary. He said: “I want to affirm the compatibility of the theory of evolution with the message of the Bible and the Church’s theology.”

In 2009 he invited hundreds of artists from all over the world to the Vatican to heal “the dramatic divorce” between the Church and the realm of art. Personalities from the worlds of art, theatre, literature and music – from Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt to Italian directors Franco Zeffirelli and Nanni Moretti – gathered with the Pope under Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

Cardinal Ravasi is also one of the few cardinals on Twitter. He has been criticised by some for this, being blamed both for not tweeting personally and for never answering questions from other users. The cardinal has shown a great interest in youth culture. He recently said he had listened to a CD by the late British singer Amy Winehouse in order to better understand young people. He found that “a quest for meaning emerges even from her distraught music and lyrics”.

Benedict XVI chose Cardinal Ravasi to lead his last Lenten spiritual exercises as Pope, a sign of appreciation and esteem.

Will the cardinal be chosen as pope? He has never run a diocese, or even a parish. Some might criticise him for this, considering him as just an intellectual. But his propensity for culture would help to lift the quality of Church’s public image, and his penchant for dialogue with contemporary society would be very precious in this difficult moment for the relations between the Church and the western world. Let me write this as Cardinal Ravasi’s fellow countryman: he would surely be the right man, if
he were not Italian.

Paolo Gambi is a contributing editor of The Catholic Herald

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