VATICAN CITY — He quotes Amy Winehouse and, unlike Benedict XVI, actually taps out his tweets himself. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi is an erudite scholar with a modern touch — and that is seen by some as just the combination the Roman Catholic Church needs to revive a church beset by scandal and a shrinking flock.
Benedict's culture minister at the Vatican, Ravasi consistently makes the short lists of closely watched candidates to be the next pope. He is one of the favorites among Catholics who long to see a return to the tradition of Italian popes. The polyglot biblical scholar peppers speeches with references ranging from Aristotle to late British diva Winehouse.
At Benedict's request, Ravasi led the pontiff and other Vatican prelates in daily Lenten meditation and prayer services during what turned out to be the pontiff's last full week in the papacy. Ravasi's words were podcast for all to hear on Vatican Radio, and the prelate tweeted in English and Italian to give the flavor of his sermons to those outside the Holy See's inner circle. Ravasi's foreign language prowess is reminiscent of that of the late globetrotting John Paul II: He tweets in English, chats in Italian, and has impressed his audiences by switching to Hebrew and Arabic in some of his speeches. As a child, he taught himself ancient Greek.
Ravasi's intellect is so hungry that he doesn't seem to sleep much at night. "He is so busy reading and digesting things," said John Thavis, author of the recently published "The Vatican Diaries," an inside look at the workings of the Holy See.
Benedict, who relaxes by playing Mozart on the piano, yearned to have the Church relive at least some of the role it had held for centuries as patron of the arts, as attested by the frescoed Vatican ceilings and walls by Michelangelo, Raphael and other great artists.
It has been Ravasi's role to spearhead that effort.
But Ravasi's Vatican resume is perhaps most notable for his efforts for dialogue with atheists. He spearheaded the Vatican's "Courtyard of the Gentiles" initiatives — a series of meetings, conferences and other intellectually flavored initiatives that brought together believers and nonbelievers in the common bond of culture.
"Believers and nonbelievers inhabit the same Earth and occupy the same classrooms of universities," Ravasi told Italian religious affairs weekly Famiglia Cristiana in an interview in 2011. Asked if he wanted to convert atheists, he replied "Absolutely not."
"Half of my friends are nonbelievers," he said.