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Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, greeted media as he arrived for a general congregation meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican in 2013. (Paul Haring/CNS)Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, greeted media as he arrived for a general congregation meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican in 2013. (Paul Haring/CNS)

By John L. Allen Jr.     Editor January 8, 2015

ROME — Shortly before Christmas, Pope Francis told Vatican officials they suffer from 15 spiritual diseases such as the “terrorism of gossip.” Presumably, the immediate reaction of most was fairly prosaic — perhaps to worry if the pope was talking about them, and if so, whether they’d still have a job.

Not so Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who was in the room at the time.

“I have to say, the first thing that came to mind was Constantin Noica, who wrote a book called ‘Six Maladies of the Contemporary Spirit,’ ” Ravasi said in an interview with Crux Wednesday.

Care to lay odds on any other Vatican mandarin at that moment flashing on an obscure 1978 title by a Romanian philosopher?

That’s Ravasi in a nutshell, who’s sort of the William F. Buckley Jr. or Noam Chomsky of the Vatican — an intellectual who’s become a star through a combination of brain power and media savvy, not to mention a remarkably entrepreneurial spirit for an egghead.

Pressed for a substantive reaction to the pope’s speech, Ravasi said it might have been embarrassing for someone who embodies the usual Vatican stereotypes, “but for me, when somebody talks very freely about limits and defects that I see, too, I don’t find it that embarrassing.”

Unlike Buckley or Chomsky, the 72-year-old Ravasi is difficult to pin down in terms of the politics of left and right. Like the smartest kid in class everywhere, however, he’s got a strong sense of self, often wading into matters other Vatican departments would fear to touch.

Over the years, he has staged high-profile and sometimes controversial events on stem cells and evolution, and in February his office will use its annual plenary assembly to take up the role of women in the contemporary world and in the Church.

“You have to make some waves, stir things up,” he said. “Sometimes people have problems and they’re not dealing with them.”

Ravasi spent much of his career running the renowned Ambrosian Library in Milan. He credits his boldness to that experience, and his friendships with people not drawn from the usual clerical circles.

“My first advantage is that I don’t come from the Curia,” he said. “I come from the secular world.”

“When I was in Milan, half my friends were atheists from very different backgrounds,” he said. “I’m probably a little freer because by now, people expect this sort of thing from me.”

Among other examples, Ravasi is a friend of Umberto Eco, Italy’s most famous living novelist and a non-believer. At this stage, Ravasi has collected “about a dozen” honorary doctorates, and will receive another from Loyola University of Chicago in March. He says he once asked Eco how many he’s got, and the reply was 36.

“I’d have to live a long time to come close to that,” he laughed.

Ravasi joined the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI, and says they had a strong rapport.

“Contrary to what people say, including some conservative groups and some journalists, he was always supportive of everything I did,” he said.

His penchant to shake things up may be even more simpatico with Pope Francis, and Ravasi said he’s been especially struck by how much of Francis’ deft communications touch is “instinctive” and “spontaneous.”

For instance, Ravasi said that a while back, he observed to Francis that the pontiff generally uses straight-forward coordinate clauses when he speaks rather than the sprawling subordinate clauses often favored by intellectuals.

At first, he said, Francis just nodded. Later, he waved Ravasi over to ask: “What does that mean?”

Ravasi took part in last October’s Synod of Bishops on the family, and was a member of a drafting committee that produced a controversial interim report signaling greater openness to gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried Catholics, and people living together outside marriage. The language was watered down in the synod’s final document.

“I’ve been in a lot of synods, and this was certainly the most open discussion I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Looking ahead to this fall’s second synod on the family, Ravasi predicted there will again be tensions, but said he can’t handicap its results.

“At this point, I just don’t know,” he said. “The overall balance, more or less, will probably be what we saw in the votes last time,” referring to the paragraph-by-paragraph vote totals the Vatican released along with the final document.

Here’s what Ravasi’s Council for Culture presently has in the hopper.

First is the “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” launched under Benedict XVI with the aim of bringing believers and non-believers into conversation. Last November, it staged an event in Argentina on famed surrealist novelist Jorge Luis Borges.

A second project involves relations between art and faith featuring another signature Ravasi touch — the Vatican’s participation in the famed “Biennale” art festival in Venice.

Third is a project for sports, which is planning a large-scale conference in September including the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, and other groups. It’ll take up questions such as racism, corruption, and doping.

Fourth is a project on mysticism, fifth is one about faith and science, and sixth is relations with states, since diplomats often propose initiatives either in their countries or in Rome.

Because Ravasi is a creative personality, he sometimes rolls the dice on things that don’t really pan out.

For instance, ahead of its meeting on women, the council released a video featuring Italian actress Nancy Brilli, who invited women to submit messages to the gathering.

Ravasi and his team saw it as an experiment in crowd-sourcing, but Brilli’s performance came off in the English-speaking world as stereotypically coquettish, producing backlash. The English version of the video was quickly removed.

Looking back, he said, “I understand now we probably made a mistake with the actress.”

That said, Ravasi takes pride in the fact that video input from women around the world will be part of the opening public event of the plenary assembly, to be staged in a Roman theater.

In a bureaucratic environment often faulted for duplication of effort, it’s tough to imagine any other Vatican office that would take on such a riotous diversity of initiatives, especially on potentially explosive topics.

At the moment, the pope’s “G9” council of cardinal advisors from around the world is pondering a sweeping reform of the Vatican, and word is that it may include eliminating or consolidating some of the pontifical councils.

Many observers in Rome will be rooting for Ravasi and his Council for Culture to make the cut … if for no other reason than frankly, the place would be a lot duller without him.