Thursday, February 07, 2013

Curial Notes, Part One

And now, another lede you couldn't make up: To better understand young people, the Vatican's Culture chief has checked into "Rehab." 

At least, of sorts.

Usually given to quoting the Scriptures in 140 characters, a Tuesday tweet from Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi probably led at least some to wonder if his 33,000-follower feed had been hacked....

The message was for real, however, as the 70 year-old prelate shared an apparently impactful part of his preparation for his office's annual plenary, this one's focus on "emerging youth cultures."

To be sure, it's a very unlikely pairing – the Milanese Scripture scholar whose papabile odds inspire Beatlemania-style yelping among some court scribes, and the brilliant yet tormented British soul singer, who died at 27 in 2011 after years of widely-chronicled alcohol and drug abuse. But as the head of Culture's language desk, the Englishman Richard Rouse, explained on Vatican Radio this week, Ravasi "has been trying to engage with the music of Amy Winehouse in the last few days [because] he’s very interested in finding out what are the expectations of the youth, what is their language, what is this desire, this very strong passionate emotional will to participate in life and the drama of life, but at the same time its not engaging with the church.

"Why is there this breakdown in the transmission of the faith?" Rouse asked. "Why are we not able to talk to them in a language that they can understand?"

Set to run through tomorrow, the gathering opened last night with a concert from The Sun – an Italian Christian rock band – which made for one of the Vatibeat's more bizarre sights in recent times: the four-man group (complete with drum-kit) set up behind the stationary speakers' dais that fronts most Vatican auditoriums, the one in question bedecked with the arms of Pope Pius XII.
Back to the concert's promoter (shown at top with his house-band at another recent Sun gig), the Culture chief is taking to his favored medium in a bid to widen the plenary's discussions – Twitter users have been asked to contribute questions or comments on the meetings focus using the hashtag #Reply2Ravasi.

On the wider front, the buzz scored by the Culture plenary is merely the start of a very high-profile February for the cardinal – at mid-month, Ravasi will serve as this year's preacher of the annual Lenten retreat for the Pope and the Roman Curia.

Keeping with the musical theme, the new Winehouse fan has chosen the Psalms as the basis for his week of reflections.

Over his nearly eight year pontificate, Benedict XVI's choice of the Lenten preacher has conspicuously evolved. Keen to avoid the traditional Roman parlor game that traditionally sized up the succession of active cardinals chosen to lead the exercises as a potential successor to bigger things, from his first Lent, the pontiff initially entrusted the intense task to several retired prelates, then a duo of priest-professors. 

Only last year, when B16 tapped the head of Africa's largest diocese, Cardinal Laurent Monswengo Pasinya of Kinshasa, had Joseph Ratzinger – who, like Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1976, had been tapped to give the talks in the years immediately preceding his election – given the talks to an active hierarch. Elevated at the consistory of 2010, until recently the 73 year-old Congolese served as global co-president of the Catholic faith and justice lobby Pax Christi.

Per custom, the exercises take place through the first week of Lent (17-23 February), during which the Vatican offices are closed and all events suspended.

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Meanwhile, speaking of the retreat, those who lead it, the Culture plenary – and, indeed, succession stakes of a significant kind – this week's Ravasifest is all the more notable for the Roman return of Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, whose 76th birthday last month on the heels of a second cancer scare have served to sharpen the focus of many on the future of the Windy City church, whose 2.3 million Catholics (their majority now Hispanic) comprise the US' third-largest diocese.

Thought to be the Stateside hierarch closest to Benedict, in 2001 George became the second American prelate to lead the Curia's spiritual exercises, following Washington's then-Archbishop James Hickey, who was made a cardinal four months after his turn in 1988. No other US cleric has given the retreat since.

Having revealed that tests found him to "appear to be free of cancer" in a December interview with the Chicago Tribune, as soon as later this year, the first native son-archbishop would likewise become the post's first holder to retire from it. All but one of Chicago's archbishops have died in office, and the exception – the prelate of George's boyhood, Cardinal Samuel Stritch – was felled by a massive stroke days after his 1958 arrival in Rome to take office as prefect of the Propaganda Fide, which would've made him the first American to lead a Vatican dicastery.

While the buzzmill bears its usual mix of the credible and the outlandish, as things heat up, the lengthy precedent unique to the Chitown seat is worth recalling: since 1939, when Stritch was sent in from Milwaukee, each Chicago appointee was already an archbishop elsewhere at the time of his selection. 

Since becoming Pope, Benedict has extended the practice to each of his major Stateside nods, naming existing metropolitans to the traditionally cardinalatial posts at New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.