Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture in the Vatican, has attacked controversial far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for his ostentatious displays of religious symbols at political events.

Behind the news

On May 18, Salvini, who came to power in 2018 on an anti-migrant, anti-Islam, “Italy first” platform, held a rally in Milan that he entrusted to the six patron saints of Europe: St Benedict of Norcia, St Brigid of Sweden, St Catherine of Siena, Saints Cyril and Methodius and St Teresa Benedetta of the Cross.

Surrounded by far-right and ultra-nationalist politicians from some ten countries, Salvini also brandished a rosary and prayed to the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Cathedral of Milan: “I entrust, Italy, my life and your lives to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, whom I’m sure will bring us to victory”.

The intrigue

“They are signs that in themselves do not represent the authenticity of the belief”, Ravasi said to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera with regard to Salvini’s stunts.

“Christ condemns those who take the first places in the synagogue, those who make broad their phylacteries… Christ forgives all sins, but he can’t stand hypocrisy. Self-salvation does not exist. One is not saved by external manifestations, but by a deep adherence to moral and existential choices. It is not the ritual gesture that saves. The sacrament is opus operatum, an objective act marked by the divine presence, but also opus operantis, a subjective act, a lifestyle and moral choice. Otherwise it is a magical ritual. Magic”.

The take-away

“Faith and religion are not synonymous, even though they are connected”, declared Ravasi. “Faith is an existential experience, a radical choice. Religion is the external manifestation. Brandishing the Gospel, showing the Rosary, kissing the crucifix does not necessarily make you a believer”.

Go deeper

In his interview with Corriere, Ravasi recognised that “it is difficult” to reconstruct an authentic “Catholic presence” in Italian politics, above and beyond stunts like those of Salvini. “However, it is possible and necessary to be a thorn in the side of society. To not be afraid to go against the grain”.

“All the great scholars affirm the return of the sacred. But the sacred can be something only ritual, external, conventional. I am afraid that profound belief is in crisis. True believers are a minority. We must not expect to be a majority, to be on top of the situation as in the past. We can and should be, I repeat, a thorn in the side, that is, a living testimony. Like the first Christians, who took refuge in the catacombs, but did not stop committing themselves in public. We can and must provoke today. We must also defend the opposite of what is dominant. After all, Christ also was kept bad company: prostitutes, sinners, apostles who betrayed him…”