Liturgical Views of the Papabili: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi

by Andrea Grillo

The Liturgy According to a Fine Biblical Scholar and a Passionate Speaker

Among the Italian cardinals who will participate in the next conclave, Gianfranco Ravasi is without doubt the prelate with the finest biblical expertise, the most acute cultural sensitivity, and the widest experience of different forms of art and contemporary literature. As President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, he has often shown skillful finesse in determining how best to relate to the “pelagus infinitae substantiae” [“the ocean of infinite substance”]—that is to say, the world interpreted as a mirror of God.

Already in his formative years—he came to Rome to study Scripture at the very beginning of the Second Vatican Council—he showed that he was a person of great ability. His collaboration with Cardinal Martini, his relationship with Father David Maria Turoldo, his extensive lecturing, and his position as Director of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, have shaped his experience as a theologian, pastor and intellectual. In the recent Lenten retreat he preached for the Roman Curia, he revealed the depth of his understanding of Scripture, which was expressed in language that was profound and refined, powerful and simple. What is so remarkable about his use of language is his ability to touch the heart and enlighten the mind of everyone.

The liturgical stance of Cardinal Ravasi can be seen in relation to four major areas: biblical language (this is the most important); ecumenical and religious openness; cultural and literary familiarity; and pastoral sensitivity.

Cardinal Ravasi’s knowledge of the biblical background of ritual action leads him to a way of understanding and celebrating liturgy that is far removed from any hint of rubricism, rigidity, or nostalgia. This is especially apparent, for example, in his in ability to keep a balance between the experience of the divine and the experience of the human within ritual action. As he said in one of his retreat conferences to the Roman Curia,

If you pay close attention, you will see that our liturgy is continuously looking upward, toward the transcendence of God and Christ, to His Word; but on the other hand, it is also directs its gaze to the gathered community. Just think of many times you are greeted within the liturgy.

As is evident, the biblical word leads one to great balance, flexibility, gentleness, and discretion, dispositions that are far removed from any rigidity in conceiving and experiencing the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. The intermingling of the Word and words, of divine and human history, not only forms the background of the biblical word, but of ritual action as well. Moreover, in the interweaving of Word and Sacrament, in the experience of the “verbum visible” [“visible word”] and the “sacramentum audibile” [“audible sacrament”], the Church discovers her identity, recognizing herself in the mystery she celebrates.

Here, of course, we can also appreciate how Cardinal Ravasi’s biblical outlook makes for a serene and calm assessment of the ‘“other,” both in terms of other denominations and of other religions, as well as far-sighted, constructive relations with the members of these denominations and religions. He addresses the theme of liturgical prayer, invocation, and praise with a transversality that is explicitly confessional. In his commentary on Psalm 31 (30), he writes,

The invocation becomes the motto that concludes the journey of many other believers, from Saint Polycarp to Saint Basil, from Saint Bernard to Saint Louis, from Hus to Luther and Melanchthon.

It is very reassuring to know that a man of the Church, a pastor, a cardinal, retains the freedom to reflect on the Christian tradition and its fundamental act of prayer without rigidity and without fear, but with the docility and strength that come from the experience of having encountered the “semina verbi” [“seeds of the Word”] in the multifaceted tradition of human culture, where God writes both straightforwardly (in an ecclesial manner) and indirectly (in the many signs indicating that the life of human beings, even those outside the Roman Catholic tradition, comes from him).

It should also be noted that his freedom in matters ecumenical and religious corresponds to the freshness he brings to his encounters with the different cultural expressions of humankind in his position as President of the Pontifical Council for Culture. An understanding of the liturgy that is faithful to the words of the Synod on the Eucharist makes it clear that the ars celebrandi [“art of celebrating”] is not to be interpreted simply as “obedience to all the rubrics,” but also—and I would say first of all—as “activating all the languages ​​of the celebration.” It is exactly here, on this ridge that is so delicate and so decisive, that Gianfranco Ravasi possesses and expresses to those who meet him an extremely refined sensibility to the Word as literature, to the aesthetics of image, to the mysterious power of sounds, and to the ecstatic power of ritual space and time. Familiarity with poets such as D. M. Turoldo or A. Merini and participation in the work of pastors such as C. M. Martini have sharpened his senses. His discerning ear and sharp eye give his liturgical celebrations a character that is neither sacralism pure and simple nor something resembling a shareholders’ meeting.

Cardinal Ravasi’s thorough knowledge and personal experience of the creative power of ritual, in which true “active participation” is not guaranteed by an “essentialist” liturgy that is reduced to its minimum—reduced, that is, to “observance of the rubrics.” Rather, it must be achieved through forms of celebration that are ample, expressive, and participatory. In such celebrations new styles of music or visual arts are welcomed and ministry is enriched by the presence not only of men, but also of women. All this constitutes not so much a point of arrival as a point of departure for an authentic “experience of God” in worship.

For Ravasi, liturgy of this kind is necessary precisely to ensure that cult does not become merely an external rite—the  kind of ritualism Isaiah was referring to when he proclaimed that God hates offerings and sacrifices. Love for the brothers and sisters and the confession of one’s sins are, therefore, crucial moments for crossing the threshold that leads to communion with the Lord. What is needed to cross this threshold is not an essentialist liturgy, but one that is hearty and nourishing.

In confirmation of this open and fresh way of thinking about the Church’s prayer and worship, Ravasi undertook the cultural and pastoral task of writing a “secular breviary,” a collection of reflections on the sacred and on prayer that is suitable for “lay” people (the word “lay” here being synonymous with “non-religious, agnostic, and even atheist”). In the “Court of the Gentiles” recently held in Assisi, the city of Saint Francis, Ravasi was able to meet with different cultures and different beliefs, doing so with the serenity of a faith that is both sure of itself and willing to engage in dialogue.

The courage that Ravasi brings to dialogue and to cultural openness, even in regard to prayer and liturgy, always goes hand in hand with pastoral sensitivity, with balance, and with a “plumpness” that is not just “beautiful form,” but “sure content” as well. In his pastoral ministry, which is essentially biblical and cultural, the celebration of the liturgy has been and continues to be central, but always at the service of a Church that is capable of prophecy and unafraid of the new or the other. It is not surprising that he speaks of the great late Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, in these terms:

There is no doubt that Martini’s gaze tended to be directed to the beyond. He was trying to make out the directions of the future. In this sense, one can truly say that his role was “prophetic.” The prophet is essentially one who is firmly planted in history and has an intuitive sense of its movements and tensions. . . . And so, perhaps the main feature of this definition is something that should characterize, at least to some degree, all believers and pastors, namely, the ability to analyze complex situations and to make connections. Sometimes it was said that Martini made statements that were at odds with—or at least at variance with—doctrine, for example, his statements on bioethics or problems of this kind. . . . In fact, his faith was one I would venture to call rock solid. And yet, he was extremely attentive to the fact that reality is complex, and that its many manifestations have to be taken into consideration. It is in this light that I think we can say that his gaze was one that went “beyond.”

The liturgy—perhaps especially the liturgy—must be able not only to “talk about” but “to give a taste” of this “beyond.”

Cardinal Ravasi is definitely a strong supporter of the liturgy that emerged from the Second Vatican Council; he has no nostalgia for the pre-conciliar form of the Latin rite. He is attentive to the Church’s musical tradition and to the new forms of sensibility and composition that continue and renew it. He is suspicious of a literalism that claims to ensure fidelity to tradition by a word-for-word translation of biblical and liturgical texts. He believes deeply in the genuine integration of unity and plurality, center and periphery, men and women—not only outside, but inside places of worship as well.

Even beyond Italy, Cardinal Ravasi’s name has almost become synonymous with insightful preaching. For many years he wrote a Sunday morning newspaper column in which he offered erudite and insightful commentary on the Gospel of the day. The identification of Ravasi with homiletic preaching is one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, which reintroduced the homily as “part of the eucharistic celebration.” Prior to the council, that would not have been possible. For one thing, on [ferial] weekdays, the Liturgy of the Word consisted of the Epistle and Gospel readings from [the previous Sunday] or the same readings from the daily Mass for the dead. You could say that, at that time and with that missal, after two weeks even Cardinal Ravasi would have run out of things to say in his homily! A cardinal who appears today as a “passionate preacher” is one of the precious fruits of the Second Vatican Council.

This is something that Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged when he wrote to Cardinal Ravasi on February 23 following the retreat he preached to the Roman Curia:

You have offered us a fascinating journey through the Psalms, following a double path: ascending and descending. The Psalms, in fact, are fundamentally oriented toward the face of God, toward the mystery in which the human mind gets lost, but the very Word of God allows us to see according to the different profiles in which God reveals himself. At the same time, in the light that shine from the face of God, praying the Psalms allows us to see the face of humanity, to recognize the truth of human joy and sorrow, human anguish and hope.


Andrea Grillo did his doctorate in Padua in fundamental (systematic) theology and liturgy. He has taught religion and theology at all levels, and has been professor of sacramental and liturgical theology at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome since 1994. He has worked with the national office of liturgy in Italy, including in the work of liturgical translations. He and his wife are the parents of two children.

Translated by Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB, of Saint John’s Abbey.


  1. Cardinal Ravasi is definitely a strong supporter of the liturgy that emerged from the Second Vatican Council; he has no nostalgia for the pre-conciliar form of the Latin rite.

    Well that needs a little nuance, I think. He’s said publicly that he’s in favor of the preservation of the pre-concilar form.

    He was asked in an interview: “Rome will welcome in the end of this week the international congress of Traditionalist faithful . What is your opinion, as “Culture Minister” of the Vatican, on the Tridentine Mass?”

    He responded:

    “Extremely favorable. It represents a monument in the history of the Church and of Civilization. How would it be ever possible to disown tradition? It is enough consider, for instance, the nobility of Gregorian Chant and of Latin. It [the Mass] is a gem to be defended and valued. Obviously, the defense of the Tridentine Rite does not entail the exclusion of the ‘Novus Ordo’ and of a Mass celebrated in the local language. I will say that there are different approaches, but both important.”

    The original interview is here in Italian. I beleive the translation comes from the web log Rorate Caeli, but can’t link to it without tripping the spam trap.

  2. I don’t have nostalgia for the EF either, since I attend it every week. It matters little to me if the Church’s leaders are committed to the OF, or prefer it over the EF. What I do care about is if they believe the EF can be a relevant liturgy that can and should be used today (as is most definitely is).

  3. I think that both St John Damascene – who first uses this phrase (though in Greek, of course) “quoddam pelagus substantiae infinitum et indeterminatum” , and St Thomas Aquinas, who quotes it with approval (I, q. 13, a. 11) – would be surprised to see it applied to “the WORLD interpreted as a mirror of God.” I don’t think that either of them understood the world to be infinite. Both of them use this phrase as a way of describing “Qui est” – “The One who Is” – as the principal or best name of God.

    Part of the difficulty lies in the use of the word “substantia” here as a translation of the Greek “ousias” in Damascene. I think St Augustine somewhere disapproves of applying “substantia” to God, and St Anselm sums the matter up rather well: “It is clear that the highest essence, which is the subject of no accidents, cannot properly be called ‘substantia’ unless the word is used as a substitute for ‘essentia’.” But others – Aquinas and Descartes, for example – are happy to continue to use the word ‘substance’ of God in the context of Damascene’s famous expression. We might prefer to translate “an infinite sea of Being”, perhaps. The world, however, vast as it may be, is finite.

    1. @Martin Wallace OP – comment #3:
      I don’t know about Augustine, but Marius Victorinus warns us about being too literal in applying ousia or substance to God in his The Generation of the Divine Word, 28 (which I was just reading yesterday in Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, 908, emphasis mine [also PL 8, 1019-1040]):

      Becuase no name worthy of God can be found, we give a name to Him from those things which we do know, while bearing in mind that we cannot give to God a name or appellation that is proper to Him. That is how we say, “God lives,” or “God understands.” Hence, from our own actions, we give a name to the actions of God, considering them as being His in a supereminent way; not such as He really is, but as an approach to what He really is: oude ontos hyparchontos, alla ontos mikrou hyparchontos. It is likewise in this way that we impose substance, existence, and other such concepts, upon God. And we speak in a certain way of His ousia or essence, in hinting at what really pertains to Him and at what His being really is, by consideration of created substance.

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