Desmond O'Grady meets the Vatican's 'culture minister', a prolific writer who has no time for computers and mobile phones hen Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi was hand-picked by Benedict XVI to be the Vatican's "minister for culture" in September 2007 his critics called him a dangerous progressive.
It is easy to see why they made this unfair accusation when one considers that the 65-year-old president of the Pontifical Council for Culture links the Bible with figures such as the Russian poet Mayakovslcy. Hindu holy books, controversial Jesuit palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin and the Italian folk singer Fabrizio De Andre. Recently he criticised Woody Allen for losing sight of life's fundamental questions and being satisfied to produce superficial entertainments. The atheist writer Umberto Eco has even encouraged Archbishop Ravasi to tie in his biblical studies with literature. art and culture.
Archbishop Ravasi is a consummate communicator. He has written, always in 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 on current affairs and issues for several Italian dailies.
"I have great empathy with Emily Dickinson," he says when I meet him in his office on Via della Conciliazione. leading to St Peter's. "She lived in a small town, Amherst — which I've visited — which Was rather like mine. She had certain fragility and, as a result, had a yearning for something religious."
If Archbishop Ravasi is fragile, his is not a physical fragility; he is strongly built. He provides other clues to his energy. 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 only needs five hours sleep a day, which leaves time for his own writing and reading. On an average day he receives five books for review, which appear in the Sunday cultural supplement of Italy's major financial daily Ii Sole 24 Ore. For 18 years before his present appointment Ravasi was prefect of the prestigious Milanese library, the Ambrosianum, which boasts 30,000 historical manuscripts including the Leonardo Da Vinci codex of 1,275 sheets. I point out to him that a previous prefect of the Ambrosianum was called to Rome. His name was Achille Ratti and in 1921 he was elected Pope Pius XI.
"That sort of thing doesn't happen these days," Archbishop Ravasi parries. "My search has always been for something permanent, for what is behind the transitory. I'm fighting loss and death, which probably relates to the absence of my father in my rust years." Gianfranco Ravasi was the first of three children of a Lombard family disrupted by World War H. 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, 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 recognise the newcomer and initially did not want him. He feels his father's absence influenced his development but later he had a close relationship with his father, who died last year. Ravasi's 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," he recalls. "It seemed to signify 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."
This seems in contrast with his energy and communicativeness.
At an early age he was separated from his schoolteacher mother to go to school in the countryside where he lived with an aunt.
"My mother died comparatively early, which was a severe blow. I was very close to her. She was in love with literature as I am, but not practical. My two sisters can do or make everything whereas I'm a nullity in that respect." (The archbishop has neither a computer nor a mobile phone.) At school Ravasi excelled in Latin and Greek. In the final Greek exam he completed his translation as the teacher finished writing the Greek text on the blackboard. He immediately handed his paper in and the teacher thought he was abandoning the exam. When Ravasi explained that he had completed the translation, the examiner replied that the text must have leaked to him and the examiners would be extremely severe at the orals. But he passed that too with flying colours.
He studied at Milan seminary where teacher Giovanni Colombo, later a cardinal, directed him towards the Bible. After seminary, Ravasi studied theology and exegesis at the Gregorian University and Biblical Institute in Rome where Carlo Maria Martini, also a future cardinal, was one of his teachers.
At the moment he is very inter ested in the "real Jesus", as opposed to "the so-called historical Jesus". The latter, he say, is "constructed according to ideas derived ultimately from positivism".
"It makes Jesus a prisoner of documents," he explains. "But we are now aware of more resources for our understanding of Jesus. To give an example: we can know more about Napoleon than is recorded in documents. If Napoleon did A and later did B, we can make inferences about the relationship between the two events and the reasons for them. We can use psychological insight. Psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology and theology can aid our understanding of Jesus. Benedict XVI used this approach in his book.
"But appetites have become jaded because of the hunt for the ever more excessive and spectacular. Surrogates for substantial religion abound but I think people are still seeking responses on the great themes such as life and death, truth and faLsehood, sin and evil. I've found there is a keen demand for material on these topics if presented in the right way."
The archbishop is certainly the man to do it. Before joining the priesthood Ravasi was going to become a Greek and Latin teacher. What changed his mind?
"1 realised that for me study and priesthood are both aspects of a pursuit of something lasting, ultimately of God," he answers, "Some can be priests and separately be scholars but for me they are part of the same search, the same questioning. I like [the French-horn American author] Julien Green's as long as we're uneasy we can be tranquil' ."