The Vatican's Culture Maven: Rome's Point Man on Culture, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi Is a Writer, Scholar, Amateur Archaeologist and Consummate Communicator

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Despite criticisms from some in the Roman curia that he is a syncretist and a dangerous progressive, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi was handpicked by Pope Benedict XVI as the Vatican's unofficial minister for culture. As president of the pontifical Council for Culture, he is tasked with encouraging cultural development at the grass roots and fostering high-level debate about faith and reason among scientists, historians, philosophers and other intellectuals.

It's an important post in this papacy, given Pope Benedict's emphasis on culture and the necessity he sees for Christians to play a countercultural role in dialogue with a largely secular society.

Since last September, Archbishop Ravasi, 65, has headed not only the Council for Culture but also the pontifical Commissions for the Church's Cultural Heritage and for Sacred (meaning Christian) Archaeology, a trio of functions never previously exercised by one person. He is thought to figure on almost every short list of papabile, candidates to become pope.

A consummate communicator, Archbishop Ravasi has written, always by longhand, 150 books as well as countless articles and is an accomplished television and radio performer. Usually, his subject is the Bible, but he has also commented both on current affairs and cultural issues for several Italian dailies. His range and clarity are exceptional. He links the Bible with figures such as the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, with Hindu holy books, with the controversial Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, with the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, with the modern folk singer Fabrizio D'Andrea.

How does he manage to be so productive? Interviewed in the Council for Culture office, on Via della Concilizione leading to St. Peter's, he provided clues. For one thing, the balding archbishop has the expressiveness and flexibility of an actor but is not carried away by his performance. For another, he says he needs only five hours sleep a day, which leaves time for his own writing and reading. On an average day he receives five books for reviews that appear in the Sunday cultural supplement of Italy's major financial daily, II Sole 24 Ore.

"My search has always been for something permanent, for what is behind the transitory, the contingent," said Archbishop Ravasi. "I'm fighting loss and death, which probably relates to the absence of my father in my first years."

Gianfranco Ravasi was the first of three children of a Lombard family disrupted by World War II. His anti-Fascist father was a tax official whose hobby and second source of income was making woodcuts used to produce posters. Sent to Sicily in the army that was to bear the brunt of the Allied invasion, he deserted but, evading Fascist and German patrols, it took him 18 months to walk to his home north of Milan. He narrowly avoided capture by German troops within a few miles of home.


Little Gianfranco did not recognize the newcomer and initially did not want him. He thinks his father's absence influenced his development but later developed a close relationship with his father, who died last year.

His first strong memory is of standing at dusk on a hill in the countryside watching a train passing through a valley and hearing it whistle.

"It was a melancholy scene. It seemed to signify for things that fade, are transitory, contingent, and I longed for something beyond appearances, something that lasts. I'd say I'm motivated not by Mediterranean optimism but Northern pessimism."

The statement seems in contrast with his energy and communicativeness.

"I was very close to my schoolteacher mother. She was in love with literature as I am, but not practical," he said. "My two sisters are the practical ones. They can do or make everything, whereas I'm a nullity in that respect." It may explain why Archbishop Ravasi has neither a computer nor a cell phone. …