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Posted May 15, 2008

John Allen
National Catholic Reporter

The Health of Pope Benedict XVI and Successors

Whenever the subject of Pope Benedict XVI's health comes up these days in Rome, comparisons to Leo XIII are very much in the air. Elected in 1878 at 68, Leo served until he was 93, marking the third-longest pontificate in church history. Given Benedict's obvious stamina during his recent trip to the United States, this appears a credible parallel indeed.

(Not everyone, it should be noted, drew this seemingly clear conclusion from the pope's performance in the States: http://ncrcafe.org/node/1765

Nonetheless, the fact that the pope is 81 cannot help but stimulate that corner of the Catholic brain given to pondering the future, even if no one seriously believes that a transition is anywhere on the horizon. For those looking arouund to see who might have the "right stuff" to be a future pope, a Vatican press conference this week regarding next October's Synod of Bishops on the Bible took on a whole new level of significance.

Among the presenters at the press conference was a man who strikes many church-watchers as a rising star: Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Ravasi is a former collaborator of the emeritus archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, even if Ravasi was sometimes seen as less flexible than Martini on moral and dogmatic questions. A highly cultured soul passionate about art and music, Ravasi revitalized the storied Ambrosian Library in Milan, turning it into an important center of civic life. He also became an important popular writer, penning articles for the major Italian secular paper Il Sole delle 24 Ore as well as the Italian bishops' own daily, L'Avvenire.

Many Italians believe that when Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan turns 75 next March, Ravasi will be an odds-on favorite as his successor. Even in his present position, however, Ravasi is in line to become a cardinal whenever Benedict XVI next decides to hold a consistory. When that happens, Ravasi, 65, will almost certainly figure on most short lists of papabile, meaning candidates as a future pope.

According to Italian vaticanista Sandro Magister, Ravasi was in line to be appointed bishop of Assisi in 2005, but that nomination was blocked due to concerns about an essay he wrote in 2002 on the subject of Easter titled, "He was not raised; he arose." Some saw Ravasi's thinking as potentially heterodox. Given that background, most insiders saw his appointment at the Council for Culture as a personal decision of Benedict XVI, made outside the normal bureaucratic channels.

(Editor's Note: Ravasi is a subject of a profile in the May 16 issue of NCR.)

Monday's press conference offered another bravura Ravasi performance.

He began with a trademark flash of humor. He noted that a recent international poll sponsored by the Catholic Biblical Federation about familiarity with the Bible originally surveyed nine countries, and is now being expanded to include four more. He wryly suggested that perhaps one more country ought to be surveyed, bringing the total to what he called the "Biblical number" of 14: the Vatican City-State.

"There might be a surprise or two" in how much occupants of the Vatican actually know about the Bible, he laughed.

Ravasi then offered a five-point overview of the findings of the new study. He was nothing if not erudite: By my count, he managed to quote Paschal, Erasmus and Umberto Eco once, and Nietzsche twice, in the course of a roughly fifteen-minute presentation.

For example, apropos of apparently strong support in many countries for educating the young about the Bible, Ravasi quoted Eco: "Why should our children be expected to know everything about the heroes of Homer, but nothing about Moses?"

On the cultural level, Ravasi argued, the Bible is a touchstone of Western identity, and if it's lost we lose some essential part of ourselves. He noted that even a virulent critic of Christianity such as Nietzsche once remarked that "between the Psalms and the poetry of Petrarch, we experience the same difference as that between our home and a foreign country."

On the spiritual level, Ravasi observed that for centuries, the Bible, especially the Psalter, was the great prayer book of the church. He called for a new commitment to prayer with scripture, including personal, private prayer. He cited Erasmus to the effect that scripture should be part of the "atmosphere" of Christian life.

Such wit and wisdom clearly recommend Ravasi as future church leader. Of course, that doesn't make him a slam-dunk papabile: Some might prefer a pope from outside Europe, at least outside Italy; some might think two scholar-popes in a row would be pushing the envelope; some conservatives may harbor reservations about Ravasi's doctrine or his politics.

What the "papal April" of 2005 should have taught us, however, is that matters such as one's stand on the issues, or one's geographical background, generally fade inside a conclave, while perceptions of personal qualities become much more decisive. At that level, it's not difficult to imagine that Ravasi might get a serious look whenever the time comes.

On Wednesday, the sad news reached me in Rome that Tim Unsworth, the legendary author and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, had died after a long illness. My brief remembrance of Unsworth can be found here: http://ncrcafe.org/node/1780 and an obituary is

I am and will continue to be

I am and will continue to be a fan of John Allen, appreciative of his informed and enlightened reporting of all things Catholic. However, I feel that in the latter half of this week's piece he succumbed to the temptation of celebrity watching that is all too common in the media.

Naturally, he is expected to take advantage of the opportunities of his most recent visit to Rome and the Vatican in interviewing important parties there -- until Allen's current presentation, I did not know exactly what the U.S. ambassador actually did or that we had a woman in that position. In addition to an ambassador, important and affable Vatican officials, such as Archbishop Ravasi, are noteworthy, if for no other reason than his position as head of the Pontifical Council of Culture has worldwide stature. To extrapolate his position and influence into the all too familiar form of entertainment of "watch the 'rising star' " is one thing -- as long as Mr. Allen left the higher stellar position that Ravasi may attain to that of cardinal. On the other hand, to further the secular game, to muse as he does on the possibility of one day Ravasi being seriously considered as the pope, Mr. Allen has stooped to a level of reporting best left to cable TV pundits, editors and owners who are hypersensitive to ratings and considerably less so to relevance. The pope is in good health and apparently in full use of his considerable faculties. Let's nip in the bud all speculation as to who might be his successor. It's denigrating to the papacy, out of line with the way a pope is chosen, and all things considered, speculative to the point of being silly.

Mr. Allen, Enough on

Mr. Allen,

Enough on papabile. This is the second week in a row. Let Benedict XVI be the Pope.

And, by the way, Ravasi wouldn't have been appointed by Benedict XVI if his association with Cardinal Martini has affected his orthodoxy, which it obviously has not.