Archbishop Ravasi's Great Loves: Christ and Culture

How a Train Whistle Brought a Search for God

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, DEC. 11, 2009 ( Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi has a powerful memory, such that thinking about the discovery of his vocation leads him to a recollection from age four.

ZENIT spoke with the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture for this week’s installation of «God’s Men.» Asked how he discovered his call to the priesthood, the 67-year-old prelate recounted an incident from right after World War II had ended.

Four-year-old Gianfranco saw how the sun was dropping behind a hill and heard a train whistle as it passed by.

«That sound is something melancholic: It makes one think of the idea of departure,» he said. «And I remember with extreme mental clarity the experience of a profound sense of the fragility of things. It was something that made me understand the meaning of death, or in any case the fact of not having definitive security here. I believe that element was important in the search for God.»

Discerning his vocation during his seminary years, Ravasi recalled how he began to understand his nostalgia for the infinite, which he had always taken as a call to participate in eternity, and as a priest, to bring others to do the same.

«Then, by this time, I felt the choice for God as the choice for the ultimate meaning of life,» he explained.
Faith through culture
Ravasi inherited from his mother his passion for reading. From his earliest youth he read Plato, St. Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky: «One sees a fundamental line of those who exalt intuition, illumination more than acquisition,»  he observed.

The archbishop is also a great music lover, particularly Bach and Mozart, but also Baroque and contemporary styles.

He contends that there is a strong connection between art and spirituality, «because they have the ultimate purpose of discovering through finite instruments — the word, images, sounds — and representing the infinite.»

So, he noted, «If I wish to understand Christ’s passion better, with Bach’s ‘Passion According to Matthew,’ I enter profoundly into a spiritual dimension.»
The prelate also confessed his admiration for visual arts, though his inability to create them. «I have so much respect and admiration for the genius that I cannot, I do not want to imitate it because it would be a clumsy thing,» he said.
Penning his thoughts
Archbishop Ravasi said he has lost count of the books he has written, but believes in all, they number about 150.

He explained that he likes to write at night: «I don’t sleep much — four hours are enough and it is as if I had rested for eight.»

And, the prelate continued, he writes by hand, not with a computer. He confessed that he does not know much about technology (though on Facebook there is a group of his admirers). He is a great researcher but he never uses Google.

Here, too, his memory comes in handy. He admits he can remember the page on which to find something he’s read 10 years ago.

«People search on Google for something on hope,» the prelate noted, by way of example «and find 58,000 possibilities. What do they do [with those]? Instead, I have perhaps only 300 possibilities, but I know which ones to choose and where.»
Called by God
The president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, ordained a priest in the Diocese of Milan in 1966, says he has lived his priestly vocation in three stages: his youth, during which he taught theology for 20 years; the period in which he was prefect of the Ambrosian Library of Milan; and finally the position he now holds in the Roman Curia.
Archbishop Ravasi confessed his current appointment to the Pontifical Council for Culture was a great joy. «It was a new prospect, no longer of Italy but of the universal Church.»
When asked what elements cannot be lacking in the life of a priest, the archbishop suggested symbolic places.
The first is a kneeler, he said, because «invocation, prayer, the primacy of grace is essential.» Then there is «the work table,» where the first book must always be the Bible. Only with these elements can the priest «go out to the square.»
Archbishop Ravasi said he considers his temperament to be pessimistic and acknowledged that he tends to dissatisfaction with human fragility, but he affirmed that serving Christ through culture is a mission that fulfills him entirely, and an excellent instrument to dialogue with the secular world.
Because of this, he describes his priesthood as «very serene, very joyful, despite the difficulties.»

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This article is part of the column God’s Men — a series of reflections on the priesthood ZENIT is offering its readers during this Year for Priests. If you or someone you know has an inspiring testimony of the priesthood to contribute, please contact our editor at

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