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The Italian intellectual: Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 03/04/13

The Cardinal has been dubbed "“the most interesting man in the Catholic Church.”

Among the Italian cardinals, there is one who outshines all the others as a brilliant intellectual: Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. He’s a former professor of Biblical exegetics who spent time in archeological digs in the Middle East and was the Prefect of the prestigious Ambrosian Library in Milan. He almost sounds like an ecclesiastical Indiana Jones.

Commenters observe that he is immensely well read, sleeps only four hours a night and spends the time with books, books, and more books. Furthermore, he is an able teacher, communicator, and evangelist. He organized the  “Courtyard of the Gentiles” series – high profile events in Paris, Bologna, Stockholm, and Bucharest – in which secular thinkers are publicly engaged in questions of religion, culture, spirituality, and learning. 

Ravasi delivered the annual Lenten retreat for members of the Curia just before Pope Benedict’s bombshell resignation, and the reports are that his study on the psalms revealed his brilliant mind and able communication skills. The National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent, John Allen, dubs Cardinal Ravasi “the most interesting man in the Catholic Church.” Allen also recognizes that sometimes a man rises to prominence just at the right time. As Joseph Ratzinger stepped naturally into the leadership role at John Paul II’s funeral, maybe Ravasi has stepped onto the stage and into the attention of the cardinals at a ripe moment.

The eldest of three children, Gianfranco’s father was a fascist government official who deserted from the Italian army in World War II and disappeared for eighteen months. His mother was a schoolteacher. In a comment that is at once personally revealing and a mark of humility and self-knowledge, Ravasi suggests that his father’s absence at a crucial stage in his life may be one of the factors that drew him to a search for permanence and security in God the Father and religion. At the university, he decided to head for the priesthood rather than teach classical languages, and since then his career has combined the challenge of academia and his calling to serve as a priest.

Would Cardinal Ravasi be a good pick for pope? Those who see the re-evangelization of Europe and the West can envision a sparklingly intellectual pope. Ravasi would be a pope who could engage on equal terms with the brightest of minds. He would be able to swap quotes from Newton, St. Augustine, Nietzsche, Darwin, Camus, the modern atheists, theologians, and philosophers. Not only that, but he’s also passionate about the new media, recognizing that preaching in church can be relevant only to believers, while the Gospel can be proclaimed instantly and globally through blogs, social media, Twitter, radio, and television to a wide population.

Ravasi is not only a widely read intellectual, but he has the common touch – he knows how to communicate and is not afraid of any debate with both intellectuals and ordinary people in the post modern world. He’s organized open forums on the question of evolution and the perceived conflict between science and religion.

However, does that mean that Cardinal Ravasi would make a good pope? John Allen notes that he has next to zero pastoral experience. He has not worked in a parish and has not run a diocese. As a “loose cannon” intellectual, Ravasi has not built a community of supporters around him, and the necessary votes may not come his way. 

Furthermore, to be a global leader, he would need to have at least some experience overseas, but he has none to speak of. His knowledge of languages is not top notch, and while he is popular in Italy, he is little known abroad. Critics of a possible Ravasi papacy would argue that the Church does not need a top intellectual at this time. We have had a philosopher pope and a theologian pope; now we need someone who is intellectually adequate, but one who can also reach out with confidence to the throngs of ordinary Catholics not only in Italy and Europe, but around the world.

A Ravasi papacy would be a European, intellectually centered papacy. According to his own criticisms about preaching, Ravasi may seem relevant and even exciting to insiders, but such a bright star to some may seem like a distant light to others.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is Catholicism, Pure and Simple. Connect with his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at

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