Tomorrow, the Vatican offices shut down for a week so that the Pope and his curial officials can attend a spiritual retreat preached by Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi. This would be a huge moment for any papal candidate — an analogy would be, letting one presidential candidate monopolize the airwaves for seven whole days, just three weeks before the New Hampshire primary. But it’s especially important for Ravasi, because he needs to address a particular weakness of his candidacy: He is the Italian cardinal most deeply engaged with the broader, secular, non-Catholic culture, but — says Vatican expert John Allen — it’s “off-putting” to some that he spends so much time reaching out. It raises the suspicion that he’s more interested in the world outside of the Church than the Church itself. So his audience this week — and, most especially, the cardinals in the room – will be watching with a gimlet eye: Does this guy have what it takes? Is he a man of serious prayer, as well as an intellectually brilliant media star?
The retreat matters. The last two Popes both had been tasked, as cardinals, with preaching this annual retreat. It is, of course, not primarily an audition for the papacy, but it is also that. And if you can get the voters’ attention at the precise time they are facing the papal election, it is even more important. (Think, also, of the speech Ratzinger got to give — because he was dean of the College of Cardinals — on April 18, 2005, in which he famously talked about a supposed “dictatorship of relativism.” I confess that I have never liked this phrase — it sounds to me too much like a challenge to the religious liberty and pluralism we Americans cherish, and do not view as a “dictatorship” of any sort — but it impressed the voters sufficiently that, the following day, Ratzinger was elected pope.)
I have just one piece of advice for Cardinal Ravasi as he enters his big moment: Keep the water bottle very close to the lectern.