Scholarly Venice cardinal intent on raising Church’s profile

By Catholic News Service

VENICE, Italy (CNS) -- Cardinal Angelo Scola, the patriarch of Venice, is a scholarly pastor intent on raising the church's cultural and social profile.

His pastoral energy and theological intensity have made him the latest and perhaps most formidable Italian candidate for the papacy.

Cardinal Angelo Scola, 63, has served as archbishop of Venice since 2002. (CNS file photo from Catholic Press Photo)

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 that has given the church three popes in the last century.

Inside and outside the church, observers sometimes describe Cardinal Scola as a cultural warrior with a 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.

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 in Mestre, across the lagoon from Venice.

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 Fausto Bonini, a parish pastor in Mestre, said Venetian Catholics did not immediately take to their new patriarch, but his open personality gradually won over most people.

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.

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

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 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.

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.

Cardinal Scola has made it a point to visit working people in places like the petrochemical plants of Porta Marghera, and he shares their economic concerns. Families are leaving Venice at a record pace 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. In 2004, 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.

Born in Malgrate, Italy, Nov. 7, 1941, he attended high school in Lecco and studied philosophy at Sacred Heart University in Milan. 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.

Cardinal Scola also became increasingly involved with Communion and Liberation, a predominantly lay Italian church movement 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.

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."

Cardinal Scola also makes frequent trips to Rome and the Vatican, where his connections remain good. He's a member of the Vatican 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, was released in early 2005.

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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