Published March 01, 2013
VATICAN CITY – He quotes Amy Winehouse and, unlike Benedict XVI, actually taps out his tweets himself. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi is an erudite scholar with a modern touch — and that is seen by some as just the combination the Catholic Church needs to revive a church beset by scandal and a shrinking flock.
Benedict's culture minister at the Vatican, Ravasi consistently makes the short lists of closely watched candidates to be the next pope. He is one of the favorites among Catholics who long to see a return to the tradition of Italian popes. The polyglot biblical scholar peppers speeches with references ranging from Aristotle to late British diva Winehouse.
At Benedict's request, Ravasi led the pontiff and other Vatican prelates in daily Lenten meditation and prayer services during what turned out to be the pontiff's last full week in the papacy. Ravasi's words were podcast for all to hear on Vatican Radio, and the prelate tweeted in English and Italian to give the flavor of his sermons to those outside the Holy See's inner circle. Ravasi's foreign language prowess is reminiscent of that of the late globetrotting John Paul II: He tweets in English, chats in Italian and has impressed his audiences by switching to Hebrew and Arabic in some of his speeches. As a child, he taught himself ancient Greek.
Ravasi's intellect is so hungry that he doesn't seem to sleep much at night. "He is so busy reading and digesting things," said John Thavis, author of the recently published "The Vatican Diaries," an inside look at the workings of the Holy See.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, The Associated Press is profiling key cardinals seen as "papabili" — contenders to the throne. In the secretive world of the Vatican, there is no way to know who is in the running, and history has yielded plenty of surprises. But these are the names that have come up time and again in speculation. Today: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi.
Benedict, who relaxes by playing Mozart on the piano, yearned to have the Church relive at least some of the role it had held for centuries ago as patron of the arts, as attested by the frescoed Vatican ceilings and walls by Michelangelo, Raphael and other great artists.
It has been Ravasi's role to spearhead that effort.
But Ravasi's Vatican resume is perhaps most notable for his efforts for dialogue with atheists. He spearheaded the Vatican's "Courtyard of the Gentiles" initiatives — a series of meetings, conferences and other intellectually flavored initiatives that brought together believers and non-believers together in the common bond of culture.
"Believers and non-believers inhabit the same Earth and occupy the same classrooms of universities," Ravasi told Italian religious affairs weekly Famiglia Cristiana in an interview in 2011. Asked if he wanted to convert atheists, he replied "Absolutely not."
"Half of my friends are non-believers," he said.
His recent Lenten meditations exalted a running theme of Benedict, whose many papal writings elaborated his thesis that faith was not only compatible with reason, but — more crucially — complementary. Ravasi's treatment of the theme was sound-bite ready: "Faith answers why, science how."
The aphoristic statement was made in the Vatican's Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Apostlic Palace. Benedict, who would later praise Ravasi for the quality of his preaching, was among the contemplative audience. As duly noted in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Benedict sent Ravasi a thank-you letter gushing with praise — saying the meditations were "enriched by your science and your experience." Benedict ended his note of appreciation with a wish that God might "reward you for this effort, that you so brilliantly carried out."
In some ways, Ravasi might match the job description of the next pope laid out last week by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, a Frenchman who heads the Vatican's office of inter-religious dialogue.
"We need a pope who's very open to dialogue with cultures and religions," Tauran told the French Catholic news agency I.Media. Tauran also said the next pope "must continue what Benedict XVI did — teach the contents of faith."
The 70-year-old Ravasi said earlier this year that he took to listening to Amy Winehouse's "lacerating" lyrics to help him understand the new language and culture of young people and how to communicate with them.
Speaking to journalists about research he did for a speech about the culture of youth, Ravasi confessed that after playing CDs of Winehouse music, he realized that the things young people's ears are attuned to are different than his.
"Still," he said, "in these words — so lacerating musically and thematically — emerge questions of common sense for all."
Ravasi is a frequent front-page commentator on Italian dailies, including a newspaper of the country's industrialist lobbies, and made frequent appearances on an Italian private TV network that is part of Silvio Berlusconi's media empire.
But Ravasi's resume is short on pastoral experience. And his candid confession to a crash course in pop music might not be enough to convince his fellow cardinals he has the star power for the top job in the Catholic church.
Benedict had the same shortcoming, but that was apparently acceptable to the cardinals who in 2005 ended up electing the elderly, reserved intellectual, perhaps to counterbalance what had just been the nearly 27-year pontificate of the charismatic, globetrotting John Paul II — who rapped in midnight prayer vigils with youth from around the world.
Ravasi had been widely viewed as a strong candidate a few years ago to lead the archdiocese of Milan, Italy's most prestigious diocese away from Rome and a training ground for "papabili" — cardinals who have the stuff to be future popes.
But Benedict instead appointed Venice's cardinal, Angelo Scola, another leading papal candidate, to the Milan post.
Ravasi's CV does have a prestigious Milan address — he use to run the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a 400-year-old library founded by a cardinal and famed for Leonardo da Vinci's 1,119-page Atlantic Codex.
One of his predecessors in heading the venerable institution was the future Pope Pius XI.