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PROFILE-SCOLA Feb-4-2005 (3,430 words) With photos to come. xxxi

Rocking the boat: Venice cardinal known for his pastoral energy

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VENICE, Italy (CNS) -- On the sun-splayed Western shore of the Lagoon of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Scola gathered his red robes and climbed out of a narrow wooden "quatordesona," a 14-oar gondola elegant enough to have carried the doges of Venice.

"I wasn't afraid for one minute," the cardinal joked as he pumped the hands of the oarsmen and moved quickly onto terra firma. "This boat is steady -- and fast!"

He had just crossed the five miles from Venice proper to Mestre, the industrial city where he was to celebrate two Masses, visit two parishes, inaugurate a center for drug addicts and see a new city park.

It was a typical Sunday for the patriarch of Venice, a man Venetians sometimes describe as a "volcano." His pastoral energy, combined with theological intensity, has made Cardinal Scola the latest and perhaps most formidable Italian candidate for a future papacy.

The son of a truck driver, the 63-year-old cardinal has made an international name for himself with his theological scholarship, preaching of retreats, youth and family ministry, university administration and writings on cultural issues.

As patriarch of Venice since 2002, he has injected new life into a see that, while hosting millions of tourists every year, is experiencing demographic collapse. Culturally and artistically, it is a unique corner of the world -- and one which has given the church three popes in the last century.

At the Lagoon landing last fall, dozens of excited Scouts and members of Catholic lay organizations greeted Cardinal Scola with enthusiasm. Squinting into the sun, he offered them a 20-second sermon on church unity and moved on to chat with some younger bicyclists, before hopping into a car for a tour with city authorities.

A half-hour later, the cardinal was seated with leading parishioners in the back room of San Marco Parish in Mestre. Parishioners clearly expected a speech, but the cardinal wanted to hear what was on their minds.

"Speak up, we have 13 minutes," he said with a smile, his large frame stationed behind a desk. He ran a hand through his thick white hair and took a sip of water from a plastic cup.

One by one the parishioners came up and told him about their history, their neighborhood, their charity groups, their local projects. Then, with two minutes left, the cardinal grabbed the microphone and subtly tried to broaden their perspective.

He told them that with big changes looming on the international horizon -- a process of global "blending" -- their solid values of work, family and faith were going to be all the more important.

A moment earlier the parishioners had been talking about visiting the elderly, printing a parish newsletter and getting kids to join the soccer team. Cardinal Scola was suddenly speaking about changes in Islam, China and Africa -- and trying to make a connection with their little corner of Italy.


The "bigger perspective" is a hallmark of the cardinal's pastoral style. So is his penchant for bluntness.

Local Catholics relate that, at a 2002 ceremony to mark his official entrance into Venice, the city's politicians spoke in customary elliptical terms about the church's proper place in what is predominantly a lay culture.

In response, Cardinal Scola made it clear that he was not going to be boxed in by archaic arrangements that limited the church's influence or voice.

"We show deference to the civil authorities when they respect the divine origin of their power and when they serve the people with objective reference to the law of God," the cardinal said.

Although it may strike outsiders as a type of code, that kind of language was seen as a refreshing change by many Catholics in the patriarchate.

"I like him a lot. He's brash, he's determined, and he's not afraid of anything," said Carmella della Puppa, a member of the pastoral council at San Marco Parish.

"The last patriarch made no sound when he walked. This one shakes people up," she said.

Comparisons between Cardinal Scola and his predecessor, Cardinal Marco Ce, are frequent, probably because the two men had such different personalities and pastoral styles.

Venetian Catholics say that Cardinal Ce had a quieter, more paternal approach that emphasized the biblical and the spiritual. Cardinal Scola comes across to many as a cultural warrior.

"Beyond his solid theological preparation, Cardinal Scola has an intelligence that allows him to read new situations and push the faith into spheres of daily life -- cultural, political or economic -- even to the point of confrontation. It's in his DNA and flows from his conviction that the faith is not something private, but must be lived in the real world," said Father Fausto Bonini, a former communications official for Cardinal Ce who is now a parish pastor in Mestre.

At the same time, Cardinal Scola has challenged his own community of Catholics and pastoral assistants with fresh ideas and projects. They include:

-- A major new educational complex in Venice called the Studium Marcianum, which aims to strengthen Catholic identity through courses that run from nursery school through postgraduate programs.

-- A number of fresh contacts and dialogues with Orthodox Church leaders, with the goal of re-establishing Venice as a bridge to the East.

-- A new magazine, Oasis, to give moral and intellectual support to Catholics living in Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East.

-- Plans to create a regional theological faculty.

-- Reorganization of the patriarchal curia under six new vicars.

-- A new version of the ancient practice of Lenten stations, with 30 special liturgies in Venetian hospitals and homes for the elderly.

-- Increased contacts with city and regional offices, including requests for public funds for some archdiocesan projects.

What Cardinal Scola quickly discovered was that many Venetians were not comfortable with such a high-profile and ambitious role for the church. One elderly priest reminded the cardinal gently that "in Venice we move around by gondola." It was go-slow advice that the cardinal never took.

Father Bonini, who was one of several priests transferred to different jobs after Cardinal Scola took the helm, said Venetian Catholics have taken to their new patriarch slowly.

"People's reaction at first was somewhat difficult, even negative. But (Cardinal) Scola has a gift for breaking through these barriers with an open personality," Father Bonini said.

He recalled when Cardinal Scola brought a parish catechism class to life with a rapid-fire question-and-answer session. Others say they were amazed to see the cardinal playing foosball with drug addicts during a pastoral visit, or actually sitting down to eat with the homeless at a soup kitchen instead of doing the routine pass-through.

"If you can get the text out of his hands, he's a great communicator," said one priest.


Cardinal Scola's texts -- sermons, speeches, conferences and theological publications -- are typically insightful, well-researched and not easy to understand. They draw heavily on philosophical and theological terminology, are dotted with footnotes and range over a wide cultural landscape.

In one pre-Easter talk last year in northern Italy, the cardinal made reference to the writings of Pope John Paul II, St. Augustine, Franz Kafka and St. John the Evangelist; the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi, Charles Peguy and Dante; the music of Mozart; and the paintings of Fra Angelico, Michelangelo and Caravaggio.

He is the kind of speaker who, even in conversation, will spontaneously break down words into their Latin or Greek roots, to underline a nuance. More than 100 of his talks -- searchable by theme, phrase or word -- are available on his Web site.

Probably the criticism most often voiced about Cardinal Scola is that he tends to speak over the heads of his listeners.

"At first, they were all big speeches, but I think he's changing to meet our needs. I must admit I still don't understand all his sermons, though," Michaela De Michieli, a catechist in Venice, said with a laugh.

At a Mass for several hundred diocesan religion teachers, she heard the cardinal deliver a formal homily: a short biblical exposition explaining the relationship among catechesis, evangelization and salvation. Then, at the end of the Mass, Cardinal Scola spoke off the cuff, in a simpler style.

Children are the church's best resource and the people most exposed to cultural dangers, he said, and the church must take great care with them.

"That meant more to me," De Michieli said.

The cardinal's pastoral collaborators give him high marks for conceptual leadership and somewhat lower marks for consensus-building.

"He listens and he has a great memory, and on some topics he really has an open mind. But he believes very strongly in his ideas, and doesn't always understand that sometimes you have to win people over to them," said Father Dino Pistolato, who heads the patriarchate's Caritas office.

For six years, Cardinal Scola was rector at Rome's Lateran University, where he is credited with raising its academic profile. Earlier, he taught anthropology at the Lateran's John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. He is still making the transition from academic to pastor, but is quick to remind people that he was a bishop once before, 1991-95, in the central Italian Diocese of Grosseto.

In an interview with Catholic News Service in December, Cardinal Scola said communicating effectively was essential to being a good pastor -- and something that is not always easy. What convinces people more than well-reasoned arguments, he said, is the ability to translate those arguments into experience.

He said he considers Pope John Paul a model for this kind of communication: someone who can write philosophically about freedom, virtue and action, then speak about these concepts in a way that is understood by a million young people.

"I, too, make an effort to do this, but I don't know how successful I am," Cardinal Scola said.


The heart of Cardinal Scola's message these days is that the church has real answers to the problems of modern men and women, particularly in restoring meaning to the concept of freedom. But, even on such basic topics as the permanence of marriage, the church's arguments are frequently misunderstood, he said.

"One reason for the misunderstanding is that we Christians often propose this moralistically instead of giving reasons, instead of convincing. This is a weakness of ours," the cardinal said.

In Cardinal Scola's view, a distorted perception of freedom is at the root of the crisis afflicting modern society. Freedom today, he says, is reduced to a single aspect -- freedom of choice -- and is increasingly detached from elementary human experience and an awareness of the absolute.

The result is "a type of delirium of omnipotence" that has, however, failed to make people happy or satisfied, he said.

The cardinal often attempts to take controversial moral questions and frame them in the wider context of Christian anthropology and philosophy. On homosexuality, for example, he said the current debate about rights is misplaced.

"The first thing that should be said is that there does not exist a man or woman on the face of the earth who does not face the lifelong, personal task of fulfilling their sexuality," he said.

"It is a personal task. A group cannot accomplish it for me. In this sense, I consider it mistaken to create groups of homosexuals in the church, because it ends up being a way to marginalize them, to label them," he said.

One of the great problems afflicting our society, he added, is the tendency to take any human inclination and demand that it be recognized as a kind of universal law.

Cardinal Scola said the church needs to move beyond these headline-grabbing issues and reach people in the areas that matter most, helping them find deeper meaning in their emotional lives, their work and their repose. It all begins with the personal encounter with Christ, he said, which should be nurtured in parishes and other forms of church community.

"The crisis of Christianity today is that our communities are fragile, and the sense of belonging is weak, because the people are lost," he said.

"Why are the people lost? Why is the community weak? Because I think we have forgotten a little about the basic elements of the human being -- his emotions and desires, how he lives concretely, how he experiences work, marriage, the family and his neighborhood," he said.

If the church wants to reach people where they live, it has to move out of the sacristy and into all sectors of civil society, he said.

"As Christians, that means we must have the courage to show our face, to say what freedom really is ... and to propose to civil society an ideal of the good life," he said.

The problem, he said, is that many lay Catholics go through life without being able to give the reasons for their faith or explain the social implications of Christianity. To help solve that, the cardinal is laying the groundwork for a small revolution in lay formation in Venice: The Marcianum educational complex plans to offer theology degrees followed by specialist studies in bioethics, business ethics, art and social sciences.

At the same time, Cardinal Scola would like to restore the parish as a spiritual and social meeting ground. He drives this theme home in frequent visits to Venetian parishes, where he has encouraged pastors to bring back recreational and hospitality programs for parishioners of all ages.


Priests and lay leaders in Venice reacted to all this with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

"This man is an organizer. He has clear ideas and presents people with clear goals. That's a very good thing," said Father Guido Scattolin, a pastor in Mestre.

But others were more cautious.

"He has all these projects, and he's in a hurry to get them done. He considers himself a leader and says the troops will follow him -- but not everyone is convinced there are enough troops for all this," said one priest who asked not to be identified.

Cardinal Scola is serious about making Venice a gateway for dialogue with Eastern churches, said Franciscan Father Roberto Giraldo, who heads the prestigious St. Bernardino Institute of Ecumenical Studies in Venice. He said Cardinal Scola has initiated high-level contacts with several Orthodox churches and has welcomed Orthodox students at church-run institutes.

The cardinal also made haste to call on Jewish leaders in Venice, in a personal visit that was simple and touching, Father Giraldo said. In a more recent meeting with Jewish representatives, Cardinal Scola said the church bears a historical responsibility for Christians who have favored injustices against Jews. On a more topical issue, he told the Jewish leaders that the "human bombs" being used against Israel were an "insidious caricature" of the concept of martyrdom.

The cardinal has made it a point to visit working people in places like the petrochemical plants of Porta Marghera, and he shares their economic concerns. The city of Venice is perhaps a worst-case example of European depopulation: the number of residents has declined from 120,000 to 60,000 over the last 10 years. Families are moving out because of lack of employment opportunities and expensive housing, and the couples who stay are having very few children.

In typical fashion, the cardinal decided to do something concrete about the problem. Last year, he announced that available apartments of the more than 400 Venetian real estate properties owned by the patriarchate gradually would be rented out to young couples.

Cardinal Scola's ambitious programs and his assertive style occasionally have made news in Venice, and he is sensitive to his treatment in the media. That has led to good-natured sparring with the press. When he touches on controversial topics in public, he'll sometimes interrupt his talks with ironic advice for reporters: "There it is -- your headline for tomorrow."

On one recent occasion, when he proudly gave a reporter a tour of the historic library at the church complex of Santa Maria della Salute, he stopped and exclaimed: "This is where we should bring journalists, who are always writing about ephemeral things! This is a place of real culture!"


Cardinal Scola's ecclesial path began with parish youth activities and participation in Catholic Action. As a philosophy student in Milan, he became president of the Italian Catholic University Federation. After his ordination in 1970, he worked with the famous theologians, Fathers Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, when they founded the international Catholic theological review, Communio. He eventually published book-length interviews with both theologians.

Even today, Cardinal Scola's talks are peppered with references to Father von Balthasar and reflect the priest's complex theological positions, which are not easily broken down into "conservative" or "liberal" categories.

Cardinal Scola also became increasingly involved with Communion and Liberation, a predominantly lay Italian church movement founded by Msgr. Luigi Guissani. Unlike movements that focused almost exclusively on personal piety, this one quickly became known for its public impact and political combativeness.

Although he later moved outside the strict Communion and Liberation orbit, Cardinal Scola has credited the movement with shaping his vocation and helping him live "a faith wide open to all the dimensions of the world." In Venice, he has turned to Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei and other movements for collaboration, in what one source described as an attempt to create an "ecumenism of movements" in the patriarchate.

Being pegged to a specific movement can be a liability for a pastor in Italy, and Cardinal Scola has made it clear that his vision as a bishop goes beyond the boundaries of Communion and Liberation or any group, or even any continent.


The cardinal, who speaks English and several other languages fluently, has traveled extensively in Europe and beyond, visiting four continents since he was named a cardinal in late 2003. He has been impressed with the liveliness of the faith in the Third World and said places like Mexico, the Philippines, Korea and sub-Saharan Africa are "the beacons for the church of the future."

Traveling to Kenya in mid-2004, he said he was struck by the communitarian dimension of parish life and the liturgy, contrasting it with the more individualistic forms of piety in the West. Unlike the "cold and quick ritual" of Sunday Mass in many Western countries, he said he witnessed four-hour African liturgies, beautifully paced with rhythmic dance and unhurried prayers.

Africa is a sign of hope for the church, Cardinal Scola said, although the continent's problems are real. Among the biggest problems faced by Africans are the impact of Western consumerist society and the fact that much of the developed world has abandoned them, he added.

Cardinal Scola also makes frequent trips to Rome and the Vatican, where his connections remain good. He's a member of the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy and the Pontifical Council for the Family and last year was named to the presiding committee of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

He has found time to write a series of short inspirational or reflective books, most recently on "Death and Freedom." The English translation of "The Nuptial Mystery," his book on love, marriage and the relationship between man and woman, has just been released.

All this activity makes rest and relaxation problematic, the cardinal acknowledged.

"It's a question that worries me a lot, because relaxation is very important," he said. People need to find a balance in their lives among work, prayer and repose, and he has not reached it yet, he said.

The cardinal said he watches TV only occasionally -- BBC News in the morning and an Italian news show at night, with an occasional talk show or soccer game. He has less and less time for surfing the Internet and uses it generally to find scholarly texts or resource material. When writing last year's Christmas sermon, he searched online for Christmas poetry, for example.

Many of those who know him describe Cardinal Scola as a workaholic. After his arrival in Venice, his habit of working until 9 p.m. amazed his curial staff; they said he never seems to stop thinking.

"You go to lunch with him and he's taking notes for his next speech," said one priest.

In the face of all this energy, all these projects and all these ideas, Venetian Catholics sometimes spontaneously offer a prediction about Cardinal Scola: that Venice won't be the last stop in his ecclesial career.


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