By Alessandro De Carolis – Vatican City
This dicastery is a bridge between the two shores of Christianity and the secular world.
“Culture”, understood in the broadest sense, is the road that connects these two shores, the place where they meet. After almost 40 years of existence – and another 17 years of “gestation” as the Secretariat for Non-believers – the Pontifical Council for Culture has built a dense network of contacts and collaborations with international institutions, becoming a constant presence at major events – Expos, the Biennale in Venice, book fairs – or their own events, such as the Courtyard of the Gentiles.
Its mission is funded through a budget that makes up a portion of the 21 million Euro spread across 30 Vatican Dicasteries and institutions. It is also a mission, explains its president, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, that is different from the other more traditional missions of other Dicasteries.
Q: The Pontifical Council that you preside over – in the wake of the Secretariat for Non-believers established by Pope Paul VI in 1965 as a response to the Second Vatican Council – nurtures an open and creative dialogue with the variegated world of contemporary culture. What is the style and the goals of the Council?
The Secretariat for Non-believers was the last of a series of Vatican bodies meant to be in dialogue, through which Paul VI wanted to theoretically embrace all of humanity: the Churches and the Christian communities, believers from other religions, and, finally, all those people of good will who did not belong to a specific religion. In the context of the Cold War, however, dialogue with non-believers was often strongly conditioned by the presence of regimes where materialistic ideologies reigned. The Secretariat was, therefore, directed toward culture as the field where dialogue with non-believers could take place.
Elected in 1978, Pope John Paul II brought with him an interest for anthropology and culture; and so, he established the Pontifical Council for Culture in 1982. Later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Secretariat for Non-believers was absorbed into the Pontifical Council for Culture. Its goal was to propose the Gospel message to culture, and to promote the inculturation of the Gospel in the societies of our day, even in secularized societies, so that, expressed in a qualified form, the Christian message could be understandable and meaningful.
The style was and is that of dialogue, represented by the image of the proverbial bridge that connects two different shores, and allows both the voice of the Church and of Christianity to be heard in the cultural sphere, as well as the voice of contemporary society with its multiple variations to be heard in the heart of the Church.
Q: The encounter between the Gospel and culture fosters friendly and collaborative relationships with representatives of science, literature, the arts, sports, seen as companions on the journey and authentic seekers of what is true, good and beautiful. What is the meaning of these experiences, at a time that is strongly characterized by secularism and religious indifference?
Over the decades, the Council has been able to weave a network of contacts, primarily with “secular” and non-Catholic institutions which allow us to carry out many different types of initiatives. This has been possible because our presence doesn’t come from on high or from a separate reality. It is, rather, a type of drawing near that has its own proper identity, one that walks alongside contemporary men and women, sharing their questions and expectations, their joys and hopes, their sufferings and anxieties. It is a discrete, but incisive, presence. Think, for example, about the meaning of the Holy See’s pavilion at an Expo, like the one in Milan in 2015, or the horticultural exhibit at Beijing in 2019, or even the one now in Dubai. The Holy See’s pavilion has always been one of the most highly visited, despite its small size and the fact that gadgets or promotional products are not handed out. The same can be said about the Holy See’s Pavilions within the Biennale in Venice (both Art and Architecture), which is extraordinarily effective, even from a popular perspective, as was the case with the ten chapels on the island of St George designed by famous architects from different countries, styles and faiths. Research conducted in the fields of technology, science and the digital culture also has a great impact. Even in highly secularized areas, a window toward the transcendent can be opened through art, science, reflection. This approach does not substitute direct evangelization, but develops the fertile ground for dialogue and serene exchange, without severity or radical clashes due to preconceptions.
Q: Cultural interests and economic administration seem to be two seemingly distant, if not irreconcilable, fields. What criteria are used to manage the Dicastery’s activity and how does the “balance sheet” and the “mission budget” go hand in hand?
Unlike other Holy See Dicasteries, whose work is strictly pastoral, administrative and legislative, directed toward within the ecclesial world, the Council is one of the entities that is projected ad extra. It carries out its activity through multiple initiatives, in collaboration with other entities and institutions in the “secular” realm. The creativity expressed by our Dicastery is, then, accompanied by an activity in seeking partners and sponsors, even from the economic/financial sectors – correctly, transparently and soberly. Thanks to these partnerships, the Dicastery is able to carry out most of its many initiatives at no administrative cost to the Holy See. In this regard, those tasks dedicated to digital culture and its application are most relevant, as are those directed to scientific matters such as genetics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, through conferences at an international level which receive organizational and economic support from outside institutions that collaborate with the Dicastery.
Q: The “Courtyard of the Gentiles”, promoted by the Pontifical Council to foster an encounter and dialogue between believers and non-believers, is celebrating its tenth birthday. What has it achieved so far and what are its future prospects regarding the major issues facing contemporary society?
Pope Benedict XVI proposed the idea of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” in a famous 2009 Christmas discourse to the Roman Curia. His intuition was welcomed as an indication for our Dicastery which – as was said – already had the task to dialogue with non-believers, thus giving it a new thrust. From that time, the “Courtyard” has been transformed into a Foundation that keeps alive that spirit through a number of dialogic initiatives. There have been dozens and dozens of “courtyards” that have already taken place or are being planned that foster dialogue, events and works on the grand themes of human existence, or even on specific aspects of culture: from the economy to politics, from diplomacy to science, from prisons to justice, from fashion to journalism, and so forth. Some events promote a high level of discussion, especially in the scientific and philosophic areas, others are more popular and take place in many capitals on various continents. This is the structure that absolutely allows the Dicastery to enter into greater contact with “far distant” horizons and it does so with unceasing creativity and through multiple initiatives. It also avails itself of a Scientific Counsel that includes high-profile personalities in various scientific and technical fields, with an impressive organization of events and the production of analytical texts and socio-cultural research.
Q: The celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death is an important opportunity to rediscover the universality of a message that still challenges today’s culture, even non-Catholic. At the end of the day, is Dante truly relevant and what does he still have to say to the people of our time?
Dante’s work is still universal and is one of the highest examples of the interconnection between faith and art, between theology, poetry and narrative, in the spirit of the via pulchritudinis (way of beauty). Beauty is, in fact, the third fundamental cultural category, along with the true and the good. There is a Dante Commission in the Dicastery that has organized a series of events connected with the 700th anniversary of the death of the Poet, and the Apostolic Letter Candor lucis aeternae: there will be readings of Dante’s works by famous actors in the Catacombs of Saint Callisto and an international congress on the eschatology of the Divine Comedy, in addition to presentations in the context of official Dante celebrations.
Q: Your Dicastery has chosen to avail itself of the collaboration of a Women’s Consultation Group, which includes high-profile figures – even non-Catholics – and even a Youth Forum. What “exchanges” are taking place with these two lively groups?
The Women’s Consultation Group was established first and came out of the observation that in our Dicastery, and more generally in the Roman Curia, there are not many qualified feminine voices who can offer their point of view on issues that are the object of our concern. It is not, therefore, a structure dedicated to feminine questions, but rather, of seeking the feminine perspective on every aspect of our work. The more recent Youth Forum began out of a similar presupposition: it is not a committee of experts who can write guides, or carry out analysis regarding the younger generation, but which, on the contrary, is an invitation extended to a group of young people from different backgrounds, believers and non-believers, to offer their perspective, even if it is still imperfect or still being formed, but creative and original, on the great existential issues that are the most important nucleus of every human experience: the mystery of life and death, the meaning of existence, beauty, work, love and friendship, and so forth. This is also a way to understand first-hand their culture, their sensibilities, (for example, in the area of music). Managing these groups is not always easy, but it is a positive risk if you really want to have an opinion, an external and objective evaluation of our activities.
Q: Sports also comes under culture. Its language is perhaps one of the most universal and shared today. Vatican Athletics is being developed precisely within the Pontifical Council. It was established recently with the goal of promoting an authentic athletic culture as a “bridge” for peace and collaboration among men and women. Can you outline an initial assessment of this experience and indicate its future prospects?
Sports is one of the most characteristic phenomena of our culture. Major sporting events are huge rituals, quasi liturgies around which crowds gather and in which they can experience a sort of chorality and festiveness. Sports has also been a source of epic and inspiring models for society. In this sense, not only a pastoral, but also a cultural and ethical approach was necessary regarding the phenomenon of sports.
This has been translated into numerous initiatives and we avail ourselves of relationships with international athletic institutions. Vatican Athletics, then, was founded under the auspices of our Dicastery, even if it is now an independent organization: it is the first strictly athletic society in the Vatican, obviously not to win athletic medals and trophies, but to be a concrete, simple presence of those values and life styles embraced by this small reality that is the Vatican but which – through the Pope’s voice – has universal importance. The extraordinary way in which it has been received indicates the necessity of new ways of playing sports, with greater attention to values and to the educational, cultural and spiritual dimension rather than to the economic dimension of profit, thus combatting the dark side that lurks about in the world of sports.